A tragic accident and a faulty rhinestone dog collar are at the center of a court drama that could have far-reaching effects on how products are sold online.
In 2015, Heather Oberdorf took her dog for a walk outside her Pennsylvania home, attaching a retractable leash to a collar she bought from Amazon seller The Furry Gang. The collar broke when her dog lunged, and the leash snapped back, permanently blinding her in one eye, according to the complaint she filed in 2016.
In the first significant decision of its kind, a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled last week that Amazon can be held liable for selling the defective product the same way a brick-and-mortar store would be, despite the company's claim it is only serving as a platform to connect buyers to third party companies like The Furry Gang.
The decision is a significant departure from the outcomes of other recent court battles. Within the last three months, two other federal courts have ruled the opposite: That, despite taking a cut of sales from third-party sales, Amazon can't be held responsible for damage caused by the products sold in its third-party "marketplace."
State and federal courts have rejected lawsuits against Amazon over everything from deadly supplements to exploding hover-boards for the same reason. The decision in the dog-leash case could change that.
"(T)his case has potential to open the courthouse and allow these cases to finally get before a jury and Amazon's business practices to be out in the open," said Brian Balser, the attorney for the family of 18-year-old Logan Stiner, who died after ingesting a fatal amount of pure caffeine a friend had bought from a marketplace seller. In February, a federal appeals court in Ohio ruled that Amazon couldn't be held liable for his death.
If you've ever shopped on Amazon.com or Walmart.com, there's a good chance you've bought something from their "marketplaces." More than half of the products purchased on Amazon are sold by independent stores through the internet giant's website.
Many customers shopping on Amazon don't realize when they're buying so-called "marketplace" products. Amazon's third-party listings have a small "sold by" tag, and third-party listings on Walmart have a label that says "sold and shipped by." Both sites often list them under "other sellers" on a product page.
In last Wednesday's decision, Judge Jane Richards Roth wrote that, by serving as the only way customers and sellers could contact each other, Amazon's platform "enables third-party vendors to conceal themselves from the customer, leaving customers injured by defective products with no direct recourse to the third-party vendor."
It can be incredibly difficult to find out who owns stores on Amazon. Last year, a New York Times investigation found 141 Amazon sellers tied to an LLC using the same address in San Francisco. One of the stores listed its return address as the Palo Alto home of a family with no ties to the companies and could not understand why they kept getting Amazon returns delivered to their house.