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When a defective product injures an individual or group of people, it’s often assumed the manufacturer is the responsible party. After all, key factors were overlooked in the development and testing of the product, which ended up compromising consumer health and safety.

However, a whole supply chain exists between the manufacturer and consumers, from warehouses and distributors to sellers. In today’s modern landscape, an ecommerce storefront may have relationships with multiple buyers or could simply act as a platform for individual sellers.

If you’ve been injured by a defective product, here’s what you should know.

Go Down the Supply Chain

man reading product label One of the imperative first steps of your claim is to identify all parties that may have developed, transported or sold the product. All parties may share some of the liability, in terms of responsibility toward the consumer and later compensating the injured party. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear who these entities are.

Who Manufactured the Product?

Defects in product design can nearly always be traced back to the manufacturer. However, especially for complex items sold on the market, multiple parties may be to blame at this stage:

  • The manufacturer, which may be a single individual or large entity selling products online or through a multi-national corporation.
  • The parts manufacturer. If the defect can be traced back to a single part, this entity may also be named as a defendant. For instance, malfunctioning Takata airbags.
  • Consultants or contractors who may have had a role in the design process.
  • Quality-control engineers, who may have been responsible for reviewing the designs or prototypes and did not catch the defect.
  • Technical and testing experts, who may have been called to review the product and drew up insufficient instructions or warnings.

In the event of a merger, acquisition, ownership change or reorganization, the new company or owner assumes liability for any of the newly merged or acquired company’s products and services.

Who Distributed the Product?

Considered the middlemen in the supply chain, the individuals or corporate entities at this stage are trusted with ensuring the product safely travels from the manufacturer to the seller. You might be dealing with a warehouse that improperly stored a product or a package handler or trucking company that didn’t take full care in transporting the item. In any case, the product ends up at the seller damaged, spoiled or contaminated in some way.

The Retailer or Seller

A seller who lacks oversight or values profits above all else could be responsible for putting a potentially dangerous product on shelves. Aside from reviewing merchandise, a seller should take appropriate action in response to all FDA and CPSC recalls. Keeping a recalled product on shelves may amount to negligence. On this subject, the retailer is often the one who carries out repairs or replacement measures after a recall. Failure to assist consumers when a remediation strategy is available may further constitute negligence.

You don’t have to be the buyer or owner of a product to bring charges against a seller. Even if the retailer was carrying used products, you can still name the company that sold the defective item as a defendant.

Ecommerce and Online Marketplaces

Although online storefronts often function similarly and have the same responsibilities as brick-and-mortar stores, online marketplaces might not count as a seller. Multiple court cases involving Amazon illustrate a fairly cloudy situation.

Especially when operating strictly as a marketplace, as opposed to selling its own purchased products, Amazon claims it doesn’t function as a seller. Siding with Amazon in product liability cases, multiple state courts have waived the company’s responsibilities in regards to its third-party vendors.

If and how Amazon qualifies as a seller varies on a state-by-state basis. In more recent cases, including one in Pennsylvania concerning a retractable dog leash and another in Tennessee about a hoverboard that caught fire, higher courts have found Amazon meets the definition of a “seller” and have allowed injured plaintiffs to pursue claims against the ecommerce giant.

Other factors may discount Amazon and similar entities from being true sellers:

  • Some states, particularly Pennsylvania, define what a seller is and isn’t with Section 402A. For instance, an auctioneer is not considered a seller, even though a product may be within its possession for a certain period of time. Under this definition, sites may function like auctioneers.
  • Amazon and similar platforms simply provide marketing for products. As a platform, such marketplaces don’t select and review the goods they carry, instead offering visibility akin to a classifieds section. That responsibility is placed on the third-party vendor.
  • Speaking broadly, the Communications Decency Act (CDA) states that providers and users of interactive computer services shouldn’t be qualified as publishers or speakers of the published content.
  • Certain states have determined that, regardless of whether they offer warehousing and fulfillment services, online marketplaces and ecommerce entities aren’t “sellers” because they don’t place their names on or take ownership of the goods displayed on their platform. On the other hand, Amazon and similar entities are part of the supply chain process.

Were you recently injured by a defective product? Don’t navigate the often convoluted claims process alone. For guidance, turn to the product liability lawyers at Trantolo & Trantolo. To begin, give us a call today.