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Don’t blame Amazon for selling exploding hoverboards, says a federal judge

By Alison Griswold

Amazon wasn’t responsible for an exploding hoverboard it sold to a family in Tennessee, a federal judge ruled May 30.

Meghan Fox bought the hoverboard, a Fiturbo F1, on Amazon for $274.79 in November 2015. She gave it to her son, Matthew, for Christmas. In January 2016, Matthew rode the hoverboard and then left it next to a couch in the family home. Later that day, the hoverboard triggered a fire that destroyed the house, according to court documents.

The hoverboard shipped from China and was sold by W2M Trading Corporation, a third-party merchant on Amazon. But Fox believed she’d purchased it directly from Amazon. It’s easy to see why: She bought the Fiturbo on Amazon.com and it arrived in a cardboard box with the Amazon trademark. Update (June 6): A spokeswoman for Amazon disputed that the shipping box carried the Amazon trademark, though the company left the point undisputed in its response to a statement of undisputed material facts for the case in March.

Amazon was well aware of hoverboard safety concerns at the time. It opened an internal investigation into hoverboards in November 2015 and by December had warned customers to discard certain purchases and pulled most of the remaining inventory from its US and UK websites. Amazon’s head of product safety at the time was concerned the entire category was bad and prone to fires and explosions, according to court documents. (In February 2016, the US government declared them all unsafe.)

Fox sued, alleging that Amazon should have done more to alert her and other customers to these potential dangers. But legally speaking, Amazon didn’t sell or manufacture the Fitburo, and wasn’t ultimately responsible for what happened to Fox, a federal judge in Tennessee said in summary judgement last week.

The court’s reasoning? Amazon was just a middleman. It didn’t design or manufacture the hoverboard, write its description on the product page, or set the purchase price. According to Amazon, it also didn’t handle the product shipping. “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,” the judge wrote in his opinion.

It’s often good to be a middleman in the new digital economy. Uber, for instance, has gotten a lot of mileage out of not being a taxi company but rather a digital “platform” that connects people who want ride with those willing to provide it. Positioning itself as a platform has helped Uber to argue that its drivers are independent contractors instead of employees, a distinction that has saved the company well over $1 billion on labor expenses in the US alone.

In Amazon’s case, being a middleman means it can carry a ton of inventory without having to worry about its quality. Last year, for example, a federal judge ruled that Amazon couldn’t be held liable for a defective dog collar sold by a third-party vendor on its site, which severed and hit a woman in the face, causing her to go blind in one eye.

At the same time, just because Amazon isn’t legally liable for products sold by third-party merchants on its marketplace doesn’t mean incidents like Fox’s couldn’t hurt its reputation. That might be one reason why the company is hard at work on AmazonBasics, a collection of thousands of products in everything from consumer electronics to home goods and apparel. By producing its own products, Amazon also has control over quality, and could potentially minimize the chances of incidents like this occurring.