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Lawsuit alleges Amazon was responsible for Minnesota man's house fire

A Minnesota man bought a battery on Amazon, and it ended up costing him $75,000 in damages and medical bills. Whose fault was it?

A Minnesota man bought a battery on Amazon, and it ended up costing him $75,000 in damages and medical bills. Whose fault was it? Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Around this time last year, Dane Meyer of Cottonwood, Minnesota purchased a Powerwings 18-volt snap-on battery from Amazon. It came recommended by the site’s “Amazon Choice” program, which features “highly-rated, well-priced products available to ship immediately.”

A month later, while it was charging comfortably in the northwest corner of Meyer’s garage, the battery combusted and set fire to the house. The charger, it appears, was incompatible. The entire garage was destroyed, along with everything in it. That plus medical services cost Meyer more than $75,000.

Luckily, he had insurance through a Des Moines company called Farm Bureau. It was obliged to pay him for what he lost. But the company also has beef with one of the parties involved: Amazon. (Usually, customers who order an "Amazon Fire Stick" are just trying to watch TV.)

In a complaint filed last month, Farm Bureau alleged Amazon had a duty to be more careful about the products it sold—let alone recommended—lest they set garages on fire while in use. The incompatible charger was also allegedly listed as “compatible” on Amazon’s website, despite evidence suggesting otherwise. So Farm Bureau is suing the company for negligence, to the familiar tune of $75,000 plus costs.

Historically, Amazon—which didn’t respond to interview requests—has been a tricky target for lawsuits. If you buy a knife that shatters into a thousand tiny knives in the middle of dicing a pepper, you can sue the manufacturer and the knife store where you bought it. But if you bought it on Amazon, you might be out of luck.

While consumers tend to look at Amazon as one more big-box store, it’s actually more like a “flea market,” as the Wall Street Journal put it, with both goods directly sold by Amazon and its third-party platform, Marketplace.

Marketplace items are cheaper, less regulated, and sometimes less reliable, but it can be a little tough for consumers to know the difference. And so far, the company has been either unable or unwilling to police the thousands of mislabeled, defective, or even unlawful goods being peddled among the rest.

But as The Verge pointed out in its piece on the lawsuit, the tide may be turning in the consumer’s favor. Last summer, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that Amazon was liable as a seller of a third-party vendor’s products. This was over a 2015 Pennsylvania case in which a woman bought a dog collar on Amazon, which snapped and lashed the retractable leash straight into her left eye, partially blinding her.

If Farm Bureau is successful in suing the company over, as the complaint put it, an “unreasonably dangerous” battery, it could become the next precedent-setter in a battle to hold Amazon more accountable for what it sells.