Beware! The hidden dangers of buying online 

Woman doing christmas shopping online at laptop

In the run up to the festive period, we are all looking for a bargain. Many of us will head online and to online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay. 

Users feel fairly secure buying online this way, especially when they see that the marketplaces offer them various protections that their purchase is safe.

But what happens when a product bought online turns out to be defective or dangerous and causes injury?

Are online marketplaces liable to pay compensation?

Although online marketplaces and auctions advertise themselves as being very secure places to buy, unless you have bought from them directly, their promises often extend only to refunding the purchase cost (and perhaps the postage if you’re lucky). 

If the product is dangerous and damages your property, or worse, injures you or your family, online marketplaces will not readily accept that they have any responsibility at all and as such, will not pay compensation. 

This is of little comfort if you have been injured, if you have lost earnings due to being off work, or if the product has caused a fire and damaged your home - all of which are recent cases suffered by clients of Digby Brown after buying online.

What products are dangerous?

The danger is not just from electrical products, such as chargers, cables, or laptops. Seemingly innocuous items can also cause serious injury – such as dog harnesses, food and drink, cosmetics or indeed any product which can be bought online. The list is endless.

In the UK, we benefit from various avenues to seek compensation if we are injured or suffer loss after buying goods. 

The importance of this cannot be understated, especially for more serious injuries where the injured person cannot work or has suffered catastrophic injury. 

Buyer’s protection in the UK

The strongest protections for buyers come from Consumer Rights Act 2015 which allows us to pursue the seller of goods which are not of satisfactory quality, and also the Consumer Protection Act 1987 which allows us to pursue the manufacturer or importer amongst others.

Difficulty to securing compensation from seller or manufacturers outside the EU

The difficulty in securing compensation is that when buying via an online marketplace, the buyer is effectively placed in the position of being the importer of the product. 

It can be extremely difficult to obtain recourse from a seller or manufacturer outside the EU. 

Even when the product is listed as being sent from the UK or EU, in some cases that may mean a warehouse which is merely a distribution location, and so this does not necessarily confirm any degree of protection. 

Perhaps two of the best-known examples of online marketplaces are eBay and Amazon. When using eBay, it is clear to the buyer that they are purchasing directly from the seller. EBay’s terms state that:

"eBay does not have possession of anything listed or sold through eBay, and is not involved in the actual transaction between buyers and sellers. The contract for the sale is directly between buyer and seller. eBay is not a traditional auctioneer."

When buying from Amazon, note that although some purchases are made directly from Amazon, when buying from third party sellers, Amazon states:

"Amazon allows third party sellers to list and sell their products at Amazon.co.uk. In each such case this is indicated on the respective product detail page. While Amazon as a platform provider helps facilitate transactions that are carried out on the Amazon platform, Amazon is neither the buyer nor the seller of the seller's items. Amazon provides a venue for sellers and buyers to negotiate and complete transactions. Accordingly, the contract formed at the completion of a sale for these third party products is solely between buyer and seller. Amazon is not a party to this contract nor assumes any responsibility arising out of or in connection with it nor is it the seller's agent. The seller is responsible for the sale of the products and for dealing with any buyer claims or any other issue arising out of or in connection with the contract between the buyer and seller."

Amazon.com regularly defends litigation against it, and it is rare for the courts to find liability. Oberdorf v. Amazon.com Inc is a rare exception this year. Under strict liability statutes in Pennsylvania, Amazon.com was found liable because the third party seller could not be traced.

Gaps in consumer protections when buying online

Great care should therefore be taken in selecting products, as a saving of a few pounds can make a catastrophic difference where the product is sent from a seller far away. 

It would be nice if the purpose of this article was to inform about available protection for consumers. 

On the contrary, it is clear that there is a significant gap in the protection for consumers when buying from online marketplaces and auctions. 

What is particularly alarming is that buyers are unaware that they are out in the cold – until it is too late. 

Although the online marketplaces and auctions make significant profits themselves, it may be said that this is very much at the expense of the consumer. 

Barry Berlow-Jackson 
Senior Solicitor, Product Liability Team

0333 200 5926

Monday to Friday: 8am - 7pm 

Saturday and Sunday: 12pm - 4pm

(Please note, local rate, even from mobile)

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