Most of us regularly buy products online now and have them shipped to our homes (especially since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic). And when we buy products from an online marketplace like Amazon, we generally expect that the marketplace seller is not responsible for any of the third-party merchandise problems we experience.

If a product is dangerous or defective and causes us injuries, we presume that the manufacturer is liable, not the seller. Until recently, that was true. As the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon enjoyed major profits with nearly none of the liability for injuries caused by dangerous products. But a major court ruling announced this week could be the start of a significant change to this policy.

The products liability lawsuit was brought by a California woman who had purchased a laptop battery from Chinese manufacturer Lenoge Technology, sold on Amazon’s platform. The battery allegedly exploded, inflicting third-degree burns on the woman’s arms, legs and feet. The woman filed suit against both Lenoge and Amazon.

Lenoge’s liability was not really a matter of debate. But recently, a California appeals court ruled that Amazon can also be held liable for the woman’s injuries.

Amazon is a unique middleman in online sales. With some sellers, Amazon is very hands-off, merely providing the platform for the sale. In other cases, Amazon essentially becomes a business partner with the seller, as with its “fulfilled by Amazon” program. Under this program:

  • Sellers ship products to Amazon warehouses rather than consumers. Amazon then ships to consumers.
  • Amazon charges sellers fees to store merchandise and fulfill orders
  • Amazon controls shipment packaging and handles any returns
  • Amazon controls many of the terms of sale and the terms of its relationship with sellers
  • Amazon requires that sellers and buyers can only communicate with one another through Amazon for transactions in the “fulfilled by Amazon” program

It is clear to see that Amazon is not a neutral third party in these kinds of sales. The Court held that Amazon could also be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries because its role had been “pivotal in bringing the product here to the consumer.”

Although this is currently just a California ruling, it may set precedents for Amazon’s liability here in Washington state and throughout the rest of the country. And in light of just how profitable and successful Amazon has been, increased liability for product defects could greatly impact victim compensation and Amazon business practices.