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The Amazon app seen on a smartphone in this illustration taken on July 13. Photo: Reuters

Amazon sued by US product safety agency over liability for dangerous third-party items like sleepwear and hairdryers

  • The US Consumer Product Safety Commission is seeking to determine if Amazon is legally responsible for items sold through its Fulfillment by Amazon service
  • Amazon has argued it is not liable for third-party products and does not want product removals to be called a recall
Amazon was sued by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which is seeking an order determining that the world's largest online retailer is legally responsible for defective products sold in its sprawling third-party marketplace.

The complaint filed on Wednesday said Amazon sold children’s sleepwear that failed to meet federal standards for flammability; some 24,000 carbon monoxide detectors that failed to activate when the harmful gas was present; and 400,000 hair dryers that risked shock and electrocution. Each of the products was sold by one of Amazon’s millions of third-party sellers, and all used a service called Fulfillment By Amazon, in which the company stores and distributes the products on behalf of its sellers.

After the CPSC notified Amazon of the defects, the Seattle-based company removed some of the product listings, notified customers that their goods presented a hazard, and offered a refund, but the actions were insufficient, the agency said in its complaint. Amazon “did not want to have this be called a recall, and they did not want to be considered legally responsible for these products,” CPSC spokesman Joe Martyak said. “That’s the deal-breaker here. We think you are responsible for this.”

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Amazon has faced a string of product liability lawsuits around the US that seek to hold the company responsible for harm caused by items purchased on its marketplace. The company has argued it is not liable for the goods sold by outside vendors, saying it merely provides a service connecting buyers and sellers, and, in one case, likening itself to an auctioneer rather than a retailer.

“Customer safety is a top priority and we take prompt action to protect customers when we are aware of a safety concern,” said Amazon spokeswoman Mary Kate McCarthy in a statement in response to the CPSC’s complaint.

Amazon took down listings for those products it was able to identify, advised shoppers to destroy them, and offered “to expand our capabilities to handle recalls” for products sold by both Amazon and its merchants, McCarthy said. “We are unclear as to why the CPSC has rejected that offer or why they have filed a complaint seeking to force us to take actions almost entirely duplicative of those we’ve already taken,” she said.

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The CPSC is best known for voluntary recalls of defective and dangerous products, in which the agency and a manufacturer or distributor agree on the outlines of a recall. It coordinates about 300 such recalls a year.

Actions like the complaint against Amazon are far more rare. The CPSC, according to spokesman Martyak, has sued companies to seek to compel a recall just “a handful” of times in the past decade or so, including last week, when CPSC sued Thyssenkrupp Access, alleging defective residential elevators. In that instance, the company objected to the demand for a recall.

“We’re eager to work with them on this,” Martyak said of Amazon. “The door is still open as far as doing a recall on this.”

The complaint seeks a determination that Amazon is a distributor of consumer products under the Consumer Product Safety Act, and an order compelling the company to work with the agency to eliminate the risk to consumers of the defective products.