Amazon Ruling Impacts Prop 65 Issues
The 2020 Prop. 65 Clearinghouse conference marked another year of thought-provoking discussion on the current state of Proposition 65 regulations and litigation. Although the Act is nearly 35 years old, trends in enforcement litigation and defenses are continuously evolving. The Prop. 65 Clearinghouse does an excellent job of combining perspectives from the various stakeholders and litigants in the field.
Among the panels at this year’s conference, discussing topics from acrylamide litigation to warnings on marijuana products, was an excellent and lively discussion on the affirmative defense under the compelled speech doctrines of the First Amendment. Briefly mentioned in that discussion was whether we may see an emergence of other protections from the Constitution invoked as defense to Prop. 65 actions. Due Process and Commerce Clause were briefly mentioned among those other potential areas where we may see further constitutional defenses.
This discussion brought to mind other areas where federal law may preempt California’s Prop. 65. In particular, and on the heals of the California Court of Appeal’s August 2020 decision in Bolger v. Amazon, the applicability of the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996. To be clear, Bolger was not a Prop. 65 case. However, the decision did briefly touch an area of federal preemption that can be used as a defense to Prop. 65 actions brought against Amazon and other online third-party seller platforms.
In Bolger, a woman was severely hurt following an explosion of a replacement laptop battery she purchased on Amazon from a third-party seller. Amazon raised a number of defenses, including immunity from liability under title 47 U.S.C. section 230 – part of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).
The CDA is extremely important to the free flow of information on the internet as it shields online content platforms from being held liable as the speaker or publisher of third-party content. Plaintiffs pursuing lawsuits based on state law “may hold liable the person who creates or develops unlawful [online] content, but not the interactive computer service provider who merely enables that content to be posted online.” (Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc. (4th Cir. 2009) 591 F.3d 250, 254; see also, HomeAway.com, Inc. v. City of Santa Monica (9th Cir. 2019) 918 F.3d 676, 681.)
The Bolger Court found that the CDA did not protect Amazon from strict liability for the battery purchased on its website because speech was not the issue. Liability was not rooted in a failure to adequately warn, for example. The Court stated that Amazon’s liability in the case did not turn whether Amazon was classified as a speaker/publisher of content on amazon.com that had been provided by the third-party seller. Instead, Amazon was found liable in Bolger because of its role in the transaction itself that was more akin to that of a “conventional retailer” and the Court subjected Amazon to strict liability as it would have for any other “conventional retailer.” (In a future CMBG3 post, we will be discussing the ramifications of that retailer label, as well as the split among courts around the country on the issue.)
From a Prop. 65 perspective, the take-away from seemingly unrelated cases like Bolger and HomeAway.com is that CDA immunity may extend to lawsuits where a plaintiff is seeking to pursue a state law cause of action (i.e., enforcement of California’s Prop. 65) against an online platform for content provided by another. In other words, the CDA could shield a company like Amazon from content-based lawsuits stemming from the alleged absence or inadequacy of a Prop. 65 warning that the third-party seller either neglected to post on the product page, or failed to provide the proper warning under Prop. 65.
For the third-party seller, not only should this be a reminder to review your obligations under regulations like Prop. 65, but also to read your vendor agreements with Amazon, Etsy, Walmart, Shopify and the like. To keep the theme on Amazon, the Amazon Business Solutions Agreement includes indemnity provisions and regulatory compliance provisions (that specifically call out Prop. 65 compliance) that every vendor should understand.