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Oberdorf v. Amazon.Com, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 21, 2017

HEATHER R. OBERDORF, MICHAEL A. OBERDORF, Plaintiffs.
v.
AMAZON.COM, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge

         Defendant Amazon.com, Inc., moved for summary judgment against Plaintiffs Heather and Michael Oberdorf. For the reasons that follow, that motion is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND [1]

         A. The Accident

         On January 12, 2015, while walking her dog, Heather Oberdorf suffered severe and permanent injuries to her left eye when the retractable leash she was using suddenly malfunctioned, snapping backwards and hitting her violently in the face.[2] Although the accident was tragic, and resulted in permanent loss of vision in Ms. Oberdorf's eye, its exact cause and circumstances need not be resolved at this stage. The focus, instead, is on how, and from whom, Ms. Oberdorf acquired the leash.

         B. The Amazon Marketplace

         Amazon.com is a well-known online retailer. In addition to selling a variety of goods directly to consumers, it also serves as a vehicle through which third parties may independently offer products for sale.[3] This service, known as the “Amazon Marketplace, ” is currently utilized by more than one million third-party vendors.[4] These third-party vendors decide which products they wish to sell, obtain their stock from manufacturers or upstream distributors, and set their own sales price.[5] They provide a description (including, perhaps, a photograph) of the product to Amazon, which Amazon uses to create a listing on its website.[6]Consumers browsing or searching for products on Amazon may be directed to these listings, where they are informed that they are purchasing from an identified third party, and not from Amazon itself.[7] Unless the third-party vendor participates in a special “Fulfillment by Amazon” program (which was not the case here), Amazon has no interaction with the third-party vendor's product at any time.[8]

         Amazon does, however, maintain some control over the Amazon Marketplace sales process. It serves as the conduit through which payment flows, collecting money from purchasers and directing it to third-party vendors after deducting a fee.[9] It requires third-party vendors, as a condition of utilizing the Marketplace, to agree to conduct all communication with consumers through its messaging platform.[10] It retains the right to edit the content and determine the appearance of product listings.[11] And it imposes rules on how third-party vendors should handle shipping and returns.[12]

         C. The Furry Gang

         Ms. Oberdorf purchased the retractable leash in question on the Amazon Marketplace on December 2, 2014, from a third-party vendor identified as “The Furry Gang.” Following the accident, Plaintiffs have apparently been unable to make contact with The Furry Gang or with the manufacturer of the retractable leash.[13]

         D. Procedural History

         The Oberdorfs initiated this suit against Amazon on June 13, 2016.[14] Their Complaint describes the accident and contains seven claims. Count I, a strict products liability claim, alleges that Amazon failed to “provide adequate warnings regarding the use of the subject [leash], causing it to be unreasonably dangerous to the intended user at the time it left [Amazon's] possession.”[15] Count II, also a strict products liability claim, alleges that the leash was “defectively designed, causing it to be unreasonably dangerous at the time it left the possession of the defendant.”[16] There are two claims labelled “Count III”: a negligence claim that alleges that Amazon was negligent in “distributing, inspecting, marketing, selling, and testing of the subject dog collar, ”[17] and a negligent undertaking claim, based on §§ 323 and 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, that alleges that Amazon breached its duty to the Oberdorfs by, inter alia, “[f]ailing to conduct a proper hazard[] analysis and address the hazard of the D-ring failure for the product.”[18] Count IV, a breach of warranty claim, alleges that Amazon breached an implied warranty that the leash was fit for its intended purpose.[19] Count V, a misrepresentation claim, alleges that Amazon misrepresented the quality and fitness of the leash.[20] And Count VI, a loss of consortium claim brought by Mr. Oberdorf, alleges that Amazon's actions proximately caused him “great mental and emotional anguish and loss of life's enjoyment.”[21] The Complaint also sought punitive damages.[22]

         Amazon moved for summary judgment on June 30, 2017.[23] The Oberdorfs opposed this motion on July 24, 2017, [24] and Amazon replied to this opposition on August 3, 2017.[25]

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is granted when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[26] A dispute is “genuine if a reasonable trier-of-fact could find in favor of the non-movant, ” and “material if it could affect the outcome of the case.”[27] To defeat a motion for summary judgment, then, the nonmoving party must point to evidence in the record that would allow a jury to rule in that party's favor.[28] When deciding whether to grant summary judgment, a court should draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.[29]

         B. Whether Amazon is a “Seller” Under Pennsylvania's Strict Products Liability Law

Pennsylvania has adopted § 402A of the Second Restatement of Torts, which states that:

(1) One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm thereby caused to the ultimate user or consumer, or to his property if
(a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product, and
(b) it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it is sold.
(2) The rule stated in Subsection (1) applies although
(a) the seller has exercised all possible care in the preparation and sale of his product, and
(b) the user or consumer has not bought the product from or entered into any contractual relation with the seller.[30]

         This provision creates a strict products liability regime, whereby a plaintiff may recover against a defendant if he can prove, inter alia, that a product was defectively designed or manufactured, or came with an insufficient warning of its dangers.[31]

         Although the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has defined “seller” under § 402A expansively, [32] it has not left that category boundless.[33] In Musser v. Vilsmeier Auction Co., Inc., [34] for example, it held that an auctioneer is not a “seller” for purposes of § 402A. There, the Court first noted the policy behind § 402A-i.e., the “special responsibility for the safety of the public undertaken by one who enters into the business of supplying human beings with products which may endanger the safety of their persons and property, and the forced reliance upon that undertaking on the part of those who purchase such goods”[35]-and then indicated that it would not impose strict liability on a defendant unless that policy was furthered.[36]

         The Court went on to note that the auction under consideration was a “means of marketing, ” while “[t]he fact of marketing was the act of the seller who chose the products and exposed them for sale by means of that auction.”[37] Furthermore:

The auction company merely provided a market as the agent of the seller. It had no role in the selection of the goods to be sold, in relation to which its momentary control was merely fortuitous and not undertaken specifically. Selection of the products bought was accomplished by the bidders, on their own initiative and without warranties by the auction company. . . . [T]he auctioneer is not equipped to pass upon the quality of the myriad of products he is called upon to auction and with which his contact is impromptu. Nor does he have direct impact upon the manufacture of the products he exposes to bids, such as would result from ...

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