A judge in Tennessee this week found that Amazon isn’t liable for the millions of dollars in damages caused by an exploding hoverboard that was sold through the company’s website.
Per CNBC, a family from Nashville who had their home destroyed in a fire caused by the hoverboard sued Amazon for $30 million, claiming the company failed to properly warn buyers of the potential dangers of the product. The judge rejected the argument and dismissed the case.
The chain of events that would eventually lead to the destructive fire started in late 2015, when Megan Fox purchased a hoverboard — the two-wheeled, self-balancing motorised boards that were briefly the hottest toy around, and not just because of their tendency to explode — for her 13-year-old son as a Christmas president.
Between the point when Fox purchased the board and Christmas day, Amazon stopped selling the hoverboards because of reports of explosions caused primarily by the lithium-ion battery in the devices. Fox wasn’t the only one to purchase one of the hoverboards through Amazon—the company saw about 250,000 of them sold in just 30 days, according to CNBC. As reports of explosions started rolling in, Amazon advised customers in the UK to dispose of the hoverboards, pulled the devices from its shop in the US and UK, and offered refunds to buyers.
Despite the actions taken by Amazon, some of the hoverboards still ended up in the hands of consumers, including Fox’s teenage son. On January 9, 2016, about two weeks after opening the present, the hoverboard exploded inside Fox’s home. Two of the family’s four children were home at the time and were forced to exit the house through windows. Fox’s husband suffered two broken bones trying to escape the fire, which eventually destroyed their home.
Unsure of who to blame for the incident, the family turned to Amazon. According to the family, the hoverboard was purchased on Amazon and had a receipt from Amazon, leading them to believe the company had at least some responsibility for the incident. It was unclear to them who manufactured the product, as it wasn’t clearly listed on the hoverboard or any of its documentation.
While the hoverboard was sold on Amazon’s platform, Amazon argued that it didn’t have a direct role in selling the device. That’s the responsibility of the storefront operator, Amazon is just the platform on which they sold their wares.
That’s not to say Amazon wasn’t worried about the hoverboard fiasco. The case showed evidence that executives at the company were concerned about selling hoverboards that had a tendency to explode. According to CNBC, emails between company bigwigs showed Amazon planned to pull hoverboards from its site on December 11, 2015, and send a “non-alarmist” email to customers who already purchased the product. Amazon’s product safety team reportedly identified 17 complaints of fires and explosions in the US caused by hoverboards sold on Amazon.
The Fox family received Amazon’s email on December 12, 2015. In the text of the message, Amazon referenced a number of news reports of “safety issues” with the hoverboards but never used the words “fire” or “explosion” within the body of the email. Fox claims that if Amazon would have made the potential harm more clear, she wouldn’t have kept the device. “I certainly would have gotten it out of my house,” she testified — though court documents note that she did not read the email.
Despite the claims of the Fox family, Judge William Campbell dismissed the case before it could head to trial. The judge suggested Amazon is just a platform to list products on and wasn’t responsible for the damages caused by a device that the company itself doesn’t manufacture or directly sell.
“Amazon’s role in the transaction was to provide a mechanism to facilitate the interchange between the entity seeking to sell the product and the individual who sought to buy it,” Campbell wrote in his decision.
Amazon’s argument that it’s simply a platform that people can sell products on has won the company a number of legal challenges like the one brought by the Fox family. The company claimed in a statement to CNBC that its sellers must “comply with all relevant laws and regulations when listing items for sale in our stores.” Seeing as over 50 percent of Amazon sales are made through third-party sellers, the company is able to skirt responsibility for a lot of product that it helps to move.
A spokesperson for Amazon provided Gizmodo with the following statement:
As a customer obsessed company, we closely monitored potential risks with hoverboards since they were first offered for sale, regardless of whether sold directly by Amazon or by sellers on our stores. As the Consumer Product Safety Commission noted at the time, when we learned of safety concerns about this toy, we were the first retailer to proactively stop sales, issue an alert, and refund customers. We continue to invest in our teams and technologies so we can improve our early detection systems and protect customers.