New opinion—Third Circuit holds that one of world’s largest sellers is a “seller”

Oberdorf v. Amazon.com—civil—partial reversal—Roth

Amazon is subject to strict liability for injuries caused by defective products sold by other vendors on its website, the Third Circuit held today.

A woman sued Amazon after a dog collar she bought on Amazon from a third-party vendor broke and the recoiling dog leash left her blind in one eye. Her claims included strict liability, negligence, and failure to warn. Amazon moved for summary judgment on two grounds, both improbable-sounding. First, it argued that it wasn’t a “seller” in sales on its website involving third-party vendors and thus couldn’t be held strictly liable under Pennsylvania product-liability law. Second, it argued that it was a “provider … of an interactive computer service” posting “information provided by another information content provider” (think Craigslist or an online chat room) and thus shielded from liability by the Communications Decency Act. The district court sided with Amazon on both counts.

Today, the Third Circuit largely reversed. It held that (1) under Pennsylvania law, Amazon is a “seller” in third-party-vendor sales from its website, and (2) Amazon is not shielded from liability by the CDA for third-party-sale claims that are based on its “role as an actor in the sales process,” but it is shielded for claims based on its failure to add information such as warnings to vendors’ content.

Joining Roth were Schwartz in full and Scirica in part. Scirica dissented as to strict liability, arguing that “well-settled Pennsylvania products liability law precludes treating Amazon as a ‘seller’ strictly liable” for third-party-vendor claims. Arguing counsel were Eric Miller—formerly of Perkins Coie, now of the Ninth Circuit—for Amazon and David Wilk of Lepley Engelman for the woman.