Commentary

Amazon Prevails In Lawsuit Over Teen's Overdose On Caffeine Powder

Amazon recently lost several high-profile fights with consumers who were seriously injured after buying defective products through the company's marketplace.

But on Thursday, Ohio's highest court unanimously handed Amazon a decisive victory in a battle over marketplace sales, ruling that the company wasn't responsible for the death of 18-year-old Logan Stiner, who ingested a fatal overdose of caffeine powder that had been sold as a “pre-workout” dietary supplement.

The supplement, called “Hard Rhino Pure Caffeine Powder,” was manufactured in China and then sold via Amazon's marketplace by Tenkoris, which operated a storefront called TheBulkSource.

Stiner obtained the caffeine from a friend, who purchased it after searching on Amazon's site for a new “pre-workout” supplement, according to court papers.

Stiner's parents sued Amazon, Tenkoris and other companies over the death.

Among other theories, the parents said Amazon should face the same legal responsibilities as any other company that puts a product into the stream of commerce.

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Amazon countered that it merely provided a platform for Tenkoris to sell the caffeine.

On Thursday, Ohio's highest court agreed with Amazon.

“Based on the understanding that placing a product in the stream of commerce requires some act of control over the product, we conclude that Amazon should not be held liable as a supplier,” Justice Judith French wrote. “Tenkoris, the seller of the caffeine powder, had sole responsibility for the fulfillment, packaging, labeling, and shipping of the product directly to customers.”

The decision comes just six weeks after an appellate court in California said Amazon might be liable for a defective battery sold through its marketplace -- though there is at least one important difference between that matter and the one in Ohio: Tenkoris itself fulfilled the order in Ohio, while Amazon fulfilled Bolger's order.

While the pro-Amazon ruling in the Ohio case might seem like good news for the retailer, the court might not have the last word on this topic.

Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman points out state lawmakers can always decide to impose liability on e-commerce sites for products sold through online marketplaces.

The Ohio ruling “might not ultimately matter to Amazon, if the state legislature choose to amend its law,” Goldman says.

It's worth noting that California came close to passing a law that would have held Amazon and other sites responsible for defective products sold by third parties. While the effort sputtered at the last minute, lawmakers in Sacramento might revisit the topic next year.

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