The online retail giant Amazon cannot be held liable for a defective dog leash that partially blinded a woman, a federal court in Pennsylvania has ruled, wading into an unanswered question in Pennsylvania products liability law.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann of the Middle District of Pennsylvania on Thursday predicted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would not consider the online behemoth a “seller” for the purposes of products liability, and granted Amazon’s summary judgment motion in Oberdorf v. Amazon.com.
In determining that strict liability should not be applied to Amazon, Brann likened the website to a newspaper, or auction house, which is not expected to vet products in the same way a brick-and-mortar store would.
“Like an auctioneer, Amazon is merely a third-party vendor’s ‘means of marketing,’ since third-party vendors—not Amazon—’choose the products and expose them for sale by means of’ the marketplace,” Brann said. “Because of the enormous number of third-party vendors (and, presumably, the correspondingly enormous number of goods sold by those vendors) Amazon is similarly ‘not equipped to pass upon the quality of the myriad of products’ available on its marketplace. And because Amazon has ‘no role in the selection of the goods to be sold,’ it also cannot have any ‘direct impact upon the manufacturer of the products’ sold by the third-party vendors.”
Lepley, Engelman & Yaw attorney David Wilk, who is representing plaintiff Heather Oberdorf, said he was disappointed in the ruling and will consider seeking an appeal.
The lawsuit stemmed from an eye injury Oberdorf sustained while walking her dog in early 2015. According to Brann’s 13-page opinion, she was using a leash she’d purchased a month earlier through Amazon.com from a company called The Furry Gang. When the leash malfunctioned it snapped backward and struck her in the face, leaving her with permanent loss of vision, Brann said.
After the incident, Oberdorf was unable to locate The Furry Gang, or contact the manufacturer directly. She subsequently sued Amazon.com alleging products liability, breach of warranty and duty, and negligence, Brann said.
Brann first looked to whether Amazon could be considered a “seller” under Pennsylvania’s products liability law, and said that, although state courts have defined the term broadly, some companies, such as auction houses, function more as a means of marketing and should not be considered sellers.
“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not ruled on whether an online sales listing service like Amazon Marketplace qualifies as a ‘seller’ under Section 402A; it is this court’s job, therefore, to predict how that court would rule on the question,” Brann said, adding the prediction seemed “uncomplicated.” “The Amazon Marketplace serves as a sort of newspaper classified ad section, connecting potential consumers with eager sellers in an efficient, modern, streamlined manner.”
Brann also agreed with Amazon that the Communications Decency Act, which says websites should not be treated as the publisher, or speaker of any information provided by another content provider, applied to Oberdorf’s negligence claims. Citing a 2016 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that tossed a case three sex trafficking victims brought against an online classified ad website, he said Amazon can’t be held liable for information that the vendors provide.
“Although the complaint frames those claims broadly, it is clear from the Oberdorfs’ papers that they are, in fact, attempting to hold Amazon liable for its role in publishing an advertisement for The Furry Group’s product,” Brann said.
Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin attorney Timothy McMahon, who represented Amazon.com, did not return a call for comment.