Subject: Retailers and Distributors

Amazon Notches Another Win on Personal Injury Liability Relating to Third-Party Seller Products

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For some time, we have been following the emerging case law on whether companies, such as Amazon, that create an online marketplace for other sellers, may be held liable when products supplied by those sellers cause injury. The cases have gone both ways, but on November 30 Amazon added another ruling to its win column when a New York appellate court upheld a ruling dismissing negligence and breach-of-warranty claims based on injuries allegedly caused by a defective service from a third-party provider on a product sold by a third party on Amazon’s website.

In Wallace v. Tri-State Assembly LLC (Case No. 2020-04820), the First Department of New York’s Appellate Division affirmed an order dismissing claims against Amazon by an individual who was injured after the handlebars on his electric bike came apart, causing him to fall. His father ordered the bike on Amazon’s website from a third-party seller in China, and at the same time purchased an assembly option from an Amazon-approved service provider, Tri-State. Plaintiff alleged that Amazon and its “agents” were negligent and breached warranties of fitness and merchantability.

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Strike Two for Amazon in the California Court of Appeal

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A California Court of Appeal has held that Amazon may be strictly liable for injuries to customers who bought products from third-party sellers offered on Amazon’s website.  (See discussion of Bolger decision here).

In Kisha Loomis v. Amazon.com LLC, plaintiff sought damages from Amazon for burns allegedly caused by a defective hoverboard she purchased through Amazon’s website.  Amazon won summary judgment from the trial court, which held that Amazon did not fall within the chain of distribution and could not be liable under the “marketing enterprise theory.”

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Online Retailers Beware: Texas Supreme Court to Consider Whether Amazon Is a “Seller”

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The Texas Supreme Court is set to determine whether Amazon can be considered a “seller,” and thus held liable, for a defective product sold through its website, in the case of McMillan v. Amazon.com, Inc., No. 20-20108, 2020 WL 7417454, at *1 (5th Cir. Dec. 18, 2020), certified question accepted (Jan. 8, 2021).

Amazon.com Inc. is the nation’s largest online retailer, selling and shipping millions of products every day. With the COVID-19 pandemic altering shopping habits, Amazon has become even more ubiquitous than ever. While many stores and online retailers struggled in 2020, Amazon’s sales skyrocketed 37% to a record $96.2 billion in the third quarter of 2020. But what happens when a product purchased from Amazon harms a customer? Can Amazon be held liable even if it has no role in designing or manufacturing the product? Courts across the country are grappling with this question, which undoubtedly will impact online retailers like Amazon for years to come.

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Pennsylvania Appellate Court Rejects Application of the Statute of Repose in Effect in the State Where an Injury Occurred Under Pennsylvania’s Borrowing Statute, But Leaves Open Possible Application Under Substantive Choice of Law Rules

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The Pennsylvania Superior Court, the state’s mid-level appellate court, recently held in Kornfeind v. New Werner Holding Co., 2020 PA Super 266, that Pennsylvania’s “borrowing statute” applies only to foreign statutes of limitation and therefore does not require application of a statute of repose enacted in the state where the plaintiff used the product and was injured. But the Court also held that statutes of repose are substantive under Pennsylvania law, and therefore the statute of repose from the state of use and injury may bar the claim in a Pennsylvania court if Pennsylvania’s choice of law rules support application of that state’s law.

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California Court of Appeal Finds Amazon Is Not Shielded from Liability for Defective Product Sold Through Its Website

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In a decision that may impact future e-commerce, the California Court of Appeal held in Bolger v. Amazon.com, LLC that under California law, Amazon could be strictly liable for an allegedly defective battery manufactured by a third-party and sold on its website.  The Court further found Amazon was not immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act.  The Court reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Amazon.

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Preemption of Structure/Function Claims

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Seen frequently on grocery items, and especially on dietary supplements, structure/function claims describe the role of a nutrient or ingredient in the structure or function of the human body. Examples include “Calcium builds strong bones,” “St. John’s Wort supports mood,” and “Vitamin E supports the immune system.”

The FDA defines and regulates structure/function claims, and FDA requirements generally preempt state-law requirements that are “not identical.” 21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a)(5). So, does compliance with FDA regulations for structure/function claims shield food and supplement manufacturers from lawsuits claiming their structure/function claims are false and misleading?

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