Tuesday, June 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Amazon can’t dodge claims of negligence in teens’ suicides

Two teens purchased sodium nitrite — commonly used to cure meats — from an Amazon seller and used it to end their lives.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A tragic case pitting the parents of two teens who killed themselves against online sales giant Amazon will move forward, albeit in a different district and without the purveyor of sodium nitrite as a co-defendant.

The teens’ parents accuse Amazon of negligence by promoting and aiding the suicides of the two teens by selling them sodium nitrite, a preservative commonly used in small quantities to cure meats such as bacon or ham. In its purest form, however, the salt has gained notoriety over the past few years as being an efficient way to take one’s life and has been widely discussed on the internet

In an investigation published last year, The New York Times identified 10 deaths by suicide using the compound over a two-year period. The two teens at the heart of the lawsuit, Kristine Jonsson, 16, of Hilliard, Ohio, and Ethan McCarthy, 17, of Milton, West Virginia, died in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

The parents initially sued in Alameda County Superior Court in October 2022, and the case was then removed to the Northern District of California. But on Thursday in a motion to dismiss hearing, U.S. District Judge James Donato indicated he thought the case should go to the District of Western Washington, where Amazon is headquartered.

“I really don’t see much of a reason to be here,” said Donato. “I can see a good reason to be in Washington with one exception.”

That exception involves Loudwolf, the Alameda County-based industrial equipment supplier which sold the 4-ounce bottles of sodium nitrite to the teens through Amazon. Since the controversy over the compound has gained broader national attention, Loudwolf has stopped selling the product through Amazon and now, even a search for the compound on the Loudwolf site turns up nothing. The company did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Donato asked the attorneys representing each side if dismissing Loudwolf was acceptable.

“If you’re willing to dismiss Loudwolf, I can see sending it the western jurisdiction of Washington,” Donato said.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Hannah Claire Meropol, pushed for keeping the case in California.

“Amazon doesn’t deny it has personally availed the privilege of doing business in California,” she told the judge.

“Just doing business here is not enough,” Donato replied. “All you have to do is one sale in the state of California and you’re on the hook.”

The choice, he said, was either going to two states in the East — Ohio and West Virginia, where the teens lived — or to go to Seattle, which won out. He also dismissed Loudwolf from the case without prejudice.

Attorneys for both parties declined to comment after the hearing.

Besides heartbreaking, the families’ accusations are dramatic.

“Amazon consciously sold Kristine and Ethan sodium nitrite with the knowledge and understanding it would be used to end their lives," they say in their complaint. “Both Kristine and Ethan had purchased the sodium nitrite for $19.99,” plaintiffs say in the lawsuit. “Amazon made a total of $2.39 from each sale.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

Categories: Business Law National

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.