Amazon argued before the Ohio Supreme Court that it is not at fault for a high school student’s death caused by a third-party product.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — In May 2014, Logan Stiner, a high school wrestler just days from graduation, was found dead in his home. 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 Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday over whether Amazon is liable for selling the caffeine powder that killed the teen. Logan’s father Dennis Stiner brought a wrongful-death lawsuit against the retail giant in the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas.
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. by Green Wave Ingredients from China.
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.
Amazon sought a summary judgment ruling in the trial court, arguing it cannot be held liable under Ohio’s Product Liability Act because it was not a supplier or manufacturer of the product. The trial court granted the motion, a decision that Ohio’s Ninth District Court of Appeals later affirmed.
Stiner then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, and the justices heard the case via video conference Wednesday due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Attorney Brian Balser, representing Stiner, argued that case law definitions of a supplier are outdated and should not allow Amazon to escape liability just because it never had physical possession of the powder that killed the teen. Other than shipping information, Tenkoris wasn’t allowed any other contact with the purchaser of its product.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor questioned the need for contact with the purchaser, and Balser explained that any safety concerns could not be relayed. He also said all complaints about defective packaging or a problem with the product went through Amazon.
Balser then cited Amazon’s guarantee to customers.
“If there is any problem with the product, Amazon actually provides an A to Z Guarantee. In other words, they guarantee if there was a problem with what you thought you were ordering, they guarantee that you can send it back to Amazon,” he said. “Don’t take it and send it back to Tenkoris or the selling partner. It’s through Amazon and it’s to Amazon.”
Attorney Brendan Murphy represented Amazon and pointed to Ohio’s product liability statute.
He said that in 1988, the legislature took it “out of the common law realm” and defined the actual liabilities and those that are liable, even defining a supplier. The only question, Murphy argued, is whether Amazon fits that strict definition of supplier. He noted it did not touch, price or list the product.
“So this case turns on whether there’s room in the ‘otherwise participates in the placing in the stream of commerce’ language for these broad and undefined concepts of promotion being somehow indispensable to a transaction,” Murphy explained.
The attorney also said that in the case of Amazon Fulfillment, possession cannot determine the liability. He said a marketplace or website cannot be held liable for the products it promotes and delivers.
“If we were to expand liability based on promotion or on vague policy notions of being able to compensate or have some sort of ability to do something with the product, that’s practically limitless,” Murphy said.
He continued, “Imagine companies like DoorDash, GrubHub – those are entities where you go on, you put in a search, you might search for an Italian restaurant and it gives you search results and you choose among them. They process the transaction, they handle the communications, the entire transaction is done on that website, that marketplace. If the court were to adopt the liability rule proposed by the plaintiff, who knows where liability would end?”
Murphy also countered Balser’s argument that Tenkoris could not communicate with consumers on Amazon.
“If you go on Amazon.com, you will see a button saying contact seller,” he explained, telling the justices that Amazon provides the buyer-seller communication tool.
During Balser’s rebuttal, Justice Patrick DeWine asked about his understanding of the phrase “otherwise participates in the placing in the stream of commerce” in the state product liability law.
“Why did the legislature put the first seven terms [of liability] in there at all? Why not just say whoever participates in the placement of a product in commerce is liable?” DeWine asked.
Balser said lawmakers used that language because they knew times change, which DeWine countered “would council leaving out the first seven terms and say whoever participates.”
Arguing Amazon was vital to the sale of the caffeine powder, Balser said Kidd never left the retail giant’s website while ordering the product.
Justice O’Connor countered that the product was available on the Tenkoris website as well as on Ebay and possibly other sites.
“When you say [Kidd] was restricted or could only get this product from Amazon, that’s not accurate,” she said.
Balser replied that roughly 75% of Tenkoris’ sales went through Amazon.
“As soon as Amazon no longer allowed them to sell this product, they had to file bankruptcy,” he said.
Thomas Jeitschko, professor of economics at Michigan State University, said the larger issue in the case is that “new economy” business services often connect sellers and buyers in what are called “platform markets.”
“Many of Amazon’s services are of this nature,” he said in an email. “In contrast, 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.”
Jeitschko also wondered about the effect of this case on other platform markets.
“The issues in this case have parallels to issues around liability that have arisen in ride-sharing and flat-sharing apps too—namely, to what extent (if any) does the sharing-economy facilitator (Uber, say, or Airbnb) have legal responsibilities tied to transaction that take place between parties using the service? And in the case of gig-workers? To what extent are gig-workers viewed as employees that might have certain labor/workplace rights?” he said. (Parentheses in original.)
It is unclear when the Ohio Supreme Court will issue its decision in the case.
Neither side immediately responded to requests for comment.