COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — In a unanimous decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Amazon is not liable for the death of a high school student caused by an overdose of caffeine powder.
The justices found that because Amazon never had possession or control of the product, it does not meet Ohio’s definition of a supplier under product liability law and therefore cannot be held responsible for the student-athlete’s death.
Logan Stiner, a high school wrestler just days from graduation, was found dead in his home southwest of Cleveland in May 2014. The coroner later determined that the 18-year-old died of cardiac arrhythmia and seizure from acute caffeine toxicity, caused by his ingestion of caffeine powder marketed as a pre-workout boost.
The powder was purchased by Stiner’s friend, Kelsey Kidd. Kidd had searched on Amazon for a pre-workout supplement and ended up buying Hard Rhino Pure Caffeine powder. She purchased the powder through Amazon’s website from seller Tenkoris LLC, which used the name The Bulk Source. The product was imported to the U.S. from China by Green Wave Ingredients.
All associated parties were named in the lawsuit except for the Chinese manufacturer, which Stiner’s father was unable to locate. The family settled with Tenkoris, Green Wave and Kidd, but Amazon contested its liability and the case worked its way through the Ohio courts.
Writing for the state’s high court Wednesday, Justice Judith French said Amazon was not a supplier because it did not “participate in placing [the] product in the stream of commerce.”
French outlined Amazon’s agreement with its vendors on the retail giant’s marketplace, which lays out rules for the sellers. Vendors are responsible for fulfilling, shipping and delivering the products, and are “responsible for ensuring proper packaging of its product, including compliance with all applicable laws and minimum-age, marking and labeling requirements,” according to the ruling.
Amazon also requires sellers to provide complete and accurate information for their products, French wrote, and Amazon does not give warranties for third-party products sold on its marketplace.
“Amazon has no relationship with the manufacturer or entities in the seller’s
distribution channel. Tenkoris, not Amazon, decided what to sell on Amazon, and
by agreement, took on the responsibility of sourcing the product from the
manufacturer until it reached the end user,” French wrote. “Tenkoris acknowledges that Amazon never had possession of the caffeine powder and never physically touched the product.”
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon Kennedy, Patrick Fischer, Patrick DeWine and Melody Stewart joined French’s opinion.
Justice Michael Donnelly concurred, but in judgment only. He wrote separately that because Ohio’s product liability law precluded the Internet age, “applying the 1980s retail-sales paradigm to modern e-commerce produces results that strike me as inequitable.”
Suggesting state lawmakers should pass an updated law, Donnelly said the statute at issue were enacted “when brick-and-mortar retail was the norm and even mail-order retailers facilitated their own sales and fulfilled their own orders.”
“The divide between the pre-Internet age and the current age is so profound that laws like the [Ohio Products Liability] Act might have well been written in the stone age,” he wrote. “Notwithstanding all the foregoing, though, this court cannot modernize the Act by judicial fiat; we must apply the statutory scheme as it is currently written. So, in the stone age we must remain.”
Amazon was represented by Brendon Murphy of Perkins Coie in Seattle, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Attorney Brian Balser, representing Stiner’s father in the case, agreed with Donnelly’s reasoning.
“We’re disappointed in the court’s decision. Ohio’s products liability law is outdated and doesn’t provide for online retailers. It’s an archaic law. It’s now on the Ohio Legislature to protect Ohio consumers,” he said.
Thomas Jeitschko, professor of economics at Michigan State University, made a similar point prior to the ruling.
“A brick-and-mortar retailer does not just connect a customer with the producer. The brick-and-mortar shop actually purchases inventory and then transacts directly with the customer,” he said when the case was argued in April.