Syracuse, N.Y. — Amazon hoped to quickly squash a Syracuse lawsuit seeking to blame the online giant for selling a dangerous thermostat that caused a fire at a town of Onondaga house.
But an Onondaga County judge ruled recently that Amazon will have to fight the case out in court. That leaves open the possibility that Amazon could be forced to cover the cost of repairing the house.
What started as a routine insurance lawsuit over a $30,000 fire has turned out to be a trend-setter nationwide as courts grapple with Amazon’s immense influence over retail commerce. It may be the first time a New York court has ruled on such a question, the judge noted.
The Chinese-sourced thermostat, identified as an Anself RF344 wireless thermostat controller, caused the Norton Road fire days after its installation in February 2018, both sides agree. The manufacturer in China can’t be easily sued.
But does Amazon bear responsibility for selling a defective product?
State Farm, the homeowners’ insurance company, says yes. After all, Amazon brought the faulty thermostat into the U.S. marketplace. Business laws generally hold that retailers bear some responsibility for the products they sell. In other words, businesses must stand behind their products.
Amazon argues that it can’t be held responsible, because the thermostat was sold by a third-party vendor, through the “Amazon Marketplace” service. Amazon argues its only role was connecting HoneyMony, the vendor, with a customer. In other words, it acted more like Craigslist than a storefront.
Onondaga County Supreme Court Justice Gerard Neri isn’t buying Amazon’s argument.
“Amazon seeks to have all the benefits of the traditional brick and mortar storefront without any of the responsibilities,” he ruled recently.
In his decision, Neri allowed the insurance claim to move forward. That will force Amazon to the bargaining table to see if a settlement can be reached. If not, a trial could be ordered down the road.
The local judge’s ruling joins a patchwork of others nationwide that address Amazon’s role in product liability — but they have produced conflicting answers. Some judges have ruled for Amazon, noting that the online site claims to never actually own the merchandise on its marketplace. Others have let cases move forward, noting that business laws are there to protect consumers from dangerous products sold by traditional retailers.
A national consensus is complicated by the fact that each state sets its own business laws. In New York, the courts have interpreted the law to hold retailers and distributors liable for defective products, the judge said.
That’s because “sellers, due to their continuing relationship with the manufacturers, are usually in a position to exert pressure for the improved safety of products and can recover increased costs within their commercial dealings, or through contribution or indemnification in litigation,” Neri noted, citing the state’s high court.
In this case, Amazon rejects responsibility for its failure, despite warehousing the thermostat, physically moving it from place to place, setting the rules for the marketplace and handling complaints about it, the judge noted.
Neri ended by noting just how much Amazon has revolutionized the way people shop.
“E-commerce has displaced brick and mortar storefronts,” Neri wrote. “The consumer goes to Amazon’s website to look for a product in the same manner one would walk into a Lowes, Home Depot, or a neighborhood True Value, or order from one of those entities’ website.”
Staff writer Douglass Dowty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 315-470-6070.