Thursday, August 14, 2020
Court of Appeal:
Contention Is Rejected that Amazon.com Is a Place Where Goods Are Sold and That It’s Not a Seller
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Amazon.com LLC cannot escape strict liability for harms caused by products it sells on the ground that it merely operates an online marketplace and is not a seller, Div. One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday.
The opinion by Justice Patricia Guerrero reverses a summary judgment granted to Amazon by San Diego Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp in an action brought by Angela Bolger, who purchased a replacement battery for her computer via Amazon. A month later, the battery caught fire while Bolger had the computer on her lap, resulting in third-degree burns to her arms, legs, and feet.
Amazon plays a “pivotal” role in getting a product to the hands of a consumer, Guerrero wrote, justifying the extension of strict liability to it.
The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“CDA”)—which shields Internet service providers from liability for providing messages of third parties—“does not apply here because Bolger’s strict liability claims depend on Amazon’s own activities, not its status as a speaker or publisher of content provided by Lenoge for its product listing,” the jurist declared.
Yesterday’s opinion directs that that the order granting summary judgment be vacated and that summary judication be granted to Amazon on all of its defenses, except its defense to the cause of action under strict liability.
Amazon argued its respondent’s brief that E-life—a fictitious name used by Amazon by Lenoge Technology (HK) Ltd.—and not it, was the seller of the battery. It said:
“E-life sourced the battery, owned it, set the price, and developed the product offer that was published on Amazon.com. Amazon, by contrast, provided the website, processed payment and remitted the price minus service fees to the seller, and provided logistics services to the seller.
“According to Bolger, providing these services makes Amazon a seller. But ‘seller’ is not a malleable concept that can be stretched to encompass a service provider that never owned or controlled the product. For that reason, nearly every court nationwide to have considered this issue has held that Amazon is not the seller of products sold by third parties on Amazon.com.”
Contradicting Amazon’s assertion, Guerrero said the company has won some bouts and lost some bouts in federal courts and courts of other states. Authorities from elsewhere are, in any event, “of limited utility,” she remarked, because the cases involve different facts or are “arguably legally distinguishable” based on differing case law or statutes.
Under the law of California—which originated the doctrine of strict products liability in the 1963 California Supreme Court case of Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc.—Amazon is not exempt from application of the doctrine, she found.
“As a factual and legal matter, Amazon placed itself between Lenoge and Bolger in the chain of distribution of the product at issue here,” Guerrero wrote, explaining:
“Amazon accepted possession of the product from Lenoge, stored it in an Amazon warehouse, attracted Bolger to the Amazon website, provided her with a product listing for Lenoge’s product, received her payment for the product, and shipped the product in Amazon packaging to her. Amazon set the terms of its relationship with Lenoge, controlled the conditions of Lenoge’s offer for sale on Amazon, limited Lenoge’s access to Amazon’s customer information, forced Lenoge to communicate with customers through Amazon, and demanded indemnification as well as substantial fees on each purchase. Whatever term we use to describe Amazon’s role, be it ‘retailer,’ ‘distributor,’ or merely ‘facilitator,’ it was pivotal in bringing the product here to the consumer.”
Similar to Retailer
While declining to affix a label to Amazon, Guerrero said it “functions in much the same manner as a conventional retailer,” invoicing the customer, receiving its payment, and shipping goods in its own packaging. She pointed out that it endeavors to assure that the products are safe, exerting pressure on “upstream distributors (like Lenoge) to enhance safety.”
In the absence of regarding Amazon as among the participants in placing products in the stream of commerce, Guerrero noted, some purchasers of defective products would be without redress.
“Under established principles of strict liability,” she said, “Amazon should be held liable if a product sold through its website turns out to be defective.”
In a footnote, she said:
“Amazon… compares itself variously to a shopping mall landlord, a credit card issuer, a trucking company, an Internet search provider, or a newspaper running classified advertisements. Amazon claims that holding it strictly liable would lead to strict liability for these entities as well. Amazon does not support this claim with any legal argument, the obvious differences between Amazon and those entities do not need to be elucidated here.”
Proclaiming the CDA to be inapplicable, Guerrero reasoned:
“…Bolger’s strict products liability claims do not depend on the content of Lenoge’s product listing, e.g., whether it was false or misleading. Bolger’s claims are based on Amazon’s role in the chain of production and distribution of an allegedly defective product. The fact that some content provided by Lenoge was posted on the Amazon website does not automatically immunize Amazon for its own choices and activities unrelated to that content.”
The case is Bolger v. Amazon.com, LLC, D075738.
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