Mother Of Daughter Who Committed Suicide Sues Amazon For Facilitating The Purchase Of Cyanide From A Third-Party Seller
from the suing-the-once-removed-messenger dept
A student's suicide -- the tragic outcome of an apparent rape -- has led to a lawsuit against the school, as well as Amazon and one of its merchants.
Sujata Singh filed the lawsuit against Amazon and the University of Pennsylvania in late July, about two and a half years after her 20-year-old daughter, Arya Singh, committed suicide in her dorm room.The school comes out looking the worst. The lengthy filing details the school's dismissive attitude towards Arya Singh's problems, including allegedly failing to contact Singh's mother to inform her of her daughter's deteriorating emotional state, plummeting grades or multiple disciplinary actions brought against her. (Interestingly, one of the disciplinary actions was related to a movie studio complaint about infringing downloads. The two downloads -- spaced a week apart -- led to a $100 fine, an official letter of reprimand and six hours of community service.)
The lawsuit alleges that the nursing student was sexually assaulted when she was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, and said the school allowed the accused assaulter to remain in the same dormitory as Singh. The alleged assaulter wasn't punished by the school, according to the suit, which was posted on the legal news website Law360.
Where the lawsuit goes off the rails is its claims against Amazon, which Singh believes bears some responsibility for her daughter's death. According to the filing, Amazon facilitated the purchase of cyanide from a Thailand-based seller. Cyanide sales have long been forbidden, but for an unknown period of time, purchasers were able to locate this item via Amazon.
Arya Singh purchased the cyanide on December 12, 2012. She used it to commit suicide on February 8, 2013. On February 2, 2013, Amazon stopped allowing sales of cyanide through its website, something apparently marked by a visible change in policy.
This timeline is accompanied by other unverifiable claims.
134. Upon information and belief, Amazon and/or Thailand Defendants sold cyanide products through Amazon's website in the United States at least fifty-one (51) times prior to Arya purchasing the cyanide.One would think that 11 deaths resulting from the sale of a single product through a single American retailer would have generated a few headlines. But there's nothing out there that backs up this claim. The Consumer Product Safety Commission's 2013 report does note that it sent Letters of Advice to the two Thailand merchants regarding their sale of cyanide, but does not list any action being taken against Amazon for allowing these sales to take place. It also makes no mention of any cyanide-related deaths in this report or the one for the prior year.
135. Upon information and belief, of the above fifty-one (51) sales, at least eleven (11) resulted in deaths to the purchasers within weeks of the sale.
It could very well be the plaintiff's lawyers have dug up something to verify these claims, but the filing itself includes nothing to back this up. Not that this unverifiable claim would derail every other accusation against Amazon, but it's not necessarily a good start.
Amazon is accused of negligence for failing to prevent the Thailand merchants from making this item available through its marketplace, as well as failing to prevent the illegal product from reaching Arya Singh. The plaintiff contends Amazon has not turned over any policies regarding the sale of banned items for the time period prior to February 2, 2013 or its alleged changes that occurred on that date. The lack of forthcoming info from Amazon certainly doesn't put it in the best light.
But as far as sales from third-party merchants go, Amazon has only limited liability. Information available at its website notes that it has "no direct involvement" with the "completion of sales" by third-party sellers. While it will step in when there's a dispute between buyer and seller, it rarely does anything more than collect its percentage of the selling price.
Singh may still be able to build a case against Amazon as there are a lot of gray areas in its policies and procedures. The company does say it polices its marketplace for illegal items, but even the tightest policing will have a few holes. Even if Amazon made certain assurances about the legitimacy of the items offered by third-party sellers, it doesn't necessarily shift the liability to Amazon. Third-party sellers are bound by agreements in which they state that what they offer doesn't violate Amazon's policies, which would obviously forbid the sale of banned substances. This shifts the legal burden for any violations back on the third-party merchant.
What none of its policies do is make Amazon responsible for Singh's death. It had no duty to warn the purchaser of the negative consequences of misusing a dangerous substance, nor is it obliged to protect the public from any inherent dangers resulting from voluntary purchases. Any such warnings would be the responsibility of the manufacturer and the direct retailer. Obviously, a Thailand-based merchant selling banned items would feel little to no obligation to warn purchasers of any legal or physical problems resulting from the acquisition and use of its offerings.
Unfortunately, the desire to aim at the largest target is often present in the wake of personal tragedies. But the simple fact is that if someone is seeking cyanide (or any other substance) to facilitate a suicide attempt, they'll likely find it, even if it isn't in the first place they look (a massive online retailer).