When you buy a product on Amazon, there’s little guarantee that what you’re getting has been expertly vetted for safety. The Wall Street Journal reported this year that more than 4,000 banned, unsafe, and mislabeled products were on the company’s platform, ranging from faulty motorcycle helmets to magnetic toys labeled as choking hazards.
Those faulty products have resulted in serious, sometimes fatal, injuries, setting loose a tidal wave of liability claims. According to court records viewed by The Verge, Amazon has faced more than 60 federal lawsuits over product liability in the past decade. The suits are a grim catalog of disaster: some allege that hoverboards purchased through the company burned down properties. A vape pen purchased through the company exploded in a pocket, according to another suit, leaving a 17-year-old with severe burns.
The list goes on: an allegedly faulty ladder bought on Amazon is blamed for a death. Two days after Christmas in 2014, a fire started at a Wyoming home, blamed on holiday lights purchased through the company. Firefighters found a man inside, facedown and unconscious, according to court filings. He died that night. The results of the suits have been mixed: Amazon has settled some cases, and successfully defended itself in others, depending on the circumstances. (The company declined to comment for this article.)
Throughout the cases, Amazon has taken advantage of its unusual legal status as half-platform, half-store. If Home Depot sells a defective bandsaw, the store can be sued alongside the company that made the product. That liability means conventional retailers have to be careful about the products they stock, making sure every item on store shelves has passed at least the most basic product safety requirements. States have passed different versions of product liability laws, but they all put the burden of fault on more than just the original manufacturer.
But Amazon is more complex: it acts as a direct seller of products, while also providing a platform, called Marketplace, for third parties to sell their products. Tightly integrated into Amazon’s own sales, Marketplace products are often cheaper for consumers, less controlled, and sometimes less reliable than other products — and because Amazon is usually seen as a platform for those sales rather than a seller, the company has far less liability for anything that goes wrong. But because the Marketplace is so intertwined with Amazon’s main “retail” store, it’s easy for customers to miss the difference.