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Amazon-branded electronics raise consumer safety concerns

The pandemic has turned nearly all Americans into faithful online shoppers (more so than we already were). Chances are good that you’ve purchased something from Amazon in the past month. It is, after all, the largest online retailer in the world. But how closely do you read reviews posted on Amazon? And for that matter, how much do you trust Amazon’s own branded products?

Although the company primarily acts as a platform connecting buyers and sellers, Amazon also offers about 5,000 products through its AmazonBasics line, which launched in 2009. The idea was for the company to sell consumers some of the most popular items they might need (cellphone chargers, power strips, over-the-counter medicines, etc.) at a better price than competitors. It is essentially Amazon’s “store brand.”

For most products, AmazonBasics seems to be just fine. But according to a CNN report from earlier this fall, many of the electronics sold under the Amazon name can be both defective and dangerous. There have been at least 1,500 reports since 2016 of AmazonBasics electronics smoking, catching on fire, overheating, and causing electrical surges/malfunctions in users’ homes. The 1,500 reports are tied to about 70 different products – some of which were quietly removed from the site, and some of which remain on sale despite users posting scary horror stories in their product reviews.

In 2017, a young man from Connecticut purchased a USB charger for his cellphone from AmazonBasics. He plugged his phone into a USB port on his computer and went to bed. He woke up to find his computer chair was on fire, and he suffered serious burns as he brought the chair outside in order to keep the fire from spreading to the rest of the house. The cord had overheated and lit the chair on fire, melting itself into the chair during the process.

Other offending products include power strips, microwaves, extension cords, paper shredders and replacement batteries for electronics (like laptops). Oddly, Amazon has not removed many of the reviews (often accompanied by pictures) from users whose property was damaged or suffered serious injury due to the malfunctioning products. For the most part, legal claims brought by consumers have been settled or otherwise resolved quietly.

For better and worse, retailers like Amazon have an especially large responsibility to consumers precisely because they dominate the retail market. If Amazon and other large corporations fail to keep customers safe or to respond appropriately to customer injuries, they will likely lose both consumer trust and untold sums of money in product liability litigation.