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Update: Supreme Court of Ohio Finds Amazon is not a “Supplier” Under State Product Liability Law

Last month, we addressed the developing caselaw governing an “e-tailer’s” role in the chain of distribution, and its resulting exposure to potential products liability suits, when a consumer purchases a defective product from a third-party vendor.  Although recent cases show that the answer ultimately depends on state law, courts have consistently focused on the level of control the e-tailer exercised over the subject product, whether the state maintains an “innocent seller” or “sealed container” defense, and whether state law treats a downstream supplier’s liability as a function of public policy.

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court of Ohio provided further guidance.  In Stiner v., Inc., the court held that Amazon was not subject to product liability and negligence claims arising from a defective product that was stored, packaged, and shipped by a third-party vendor who listed it on Amazon’s Marketplace.[1]  Like many other e-tailer cases, the product manufacturer in Stiner wasn’t subject to judicial process in Ohio, so Amazon’s liability depended on whether it qualified as a downstream “supplier” under the Ohio Products Liability Act.[2]  Because the third-party vendor sourced, packaged, labeled, and shipped the product itself, the court held that Amazon was not a “supplier” under Ohio law.[3]  The court also reasoned that holding Amazon liable would not promote product safety, as the company did not have a relationship with the manufacturer of the third-party product, did not choose to offer it for sale, and had no role in its design, manufacture, or labeling.[4]

The Stiner court’s treatment of public policy considerations is noteworthy.  Its conclusion that holding Amazon liable would not promote product safety contrasts with several other decisions, including the panel’s original decision in the Oberdorf case that we discussed in last month’s article.  Practitioners should keep an eye on how courts deal with the public policy question in future e-tailer cases.

[1] Stiner v., Inc., 2020-Ohio-4632, 2020 WL 5822477, *6 (October 1, 2020).

[2] See Ohio Rev. Code § 2307.71, et seq.

[3] Stiner, 2020 WL 5822477, at *3-5.

[4] Id. at *5-6.