By Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Claims Journal
Logan Stiner was just days from high school graduation when his brother found him unresponsive in their family’s home southwest of Cleveland in May 2014. Stiner, 18, died of cardiac arrhythmia and seizure from acute caffeine toxicity, a coroner ruled. He had more than 70 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter of blood in his system _as much as 23 times the amount found in the system of a typical coffee or soda drinker.
What’s undisputed is that Stiner ingested powdered caffeine given to him by a friend who bought it on Amazon and was using it as a “pre-workout” boost. The question is what, if any, liability Amazon had in Stiner’s death.
The Ohio Supreme Court plans Wednesday to hear arguments for and against a lawsuit brought by Stiner’s family arguing the online retail giant, as the company that shipped the product, should be held responsible under Ohio product liability law. A decision isn’t expected for several weeks.
Attorneys for Stiner’s father say the company was not a “neutral platform” in the powder’s sale but promoted it, introduced it to Stiner’s friend as a customer and played an “indispensable role” in its sale. “The idea that Amazon cannot be a `supplier’ because it did not physically touch or take title to the product at issue ignores both the manner in which e-commerce is conducted today and Amazon’s crucial role in recommending the deadly powder,” Brian Balser, a lawyer for Dennis Stiner, said in written arguments last year.
Lawyers for Amazon say the company doesn’t meet the definition of a supplier under Ohio law _ ownership, control and hands-on actions with a product. They note that Stiner’s friend has testified she chose to click on the product she then bought. “Amazon never touched the product, and third parties provided all of the website content and delivered the product directly to the purchaser,” Joyce Edelman, an attorney for Amazon, said in a December 2019 court filing.
In 2015, the governor at the time, Republican John Kasich, signed into law a bill inspired by Stiner’s death that banned the sale of pure powdered caffeine in Ohio. Two lower courts ruled against Stiner’s family, and both the Ohio and U.S. chambers of commerce have urged the Ohio Supreme Court to uphold those decisions. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia is reviewing a lawsuit against Amazon brought by a Pennsylvania woman who was blinded in one eye after a retractable dog leash she bought snapped and hit her. In that case, a three-judge panel ruled last year that Amazon could be sued over a defective product sold by one of its third-party vendors. That ruling was then vacated when the full court agreed to hear the case.
The Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers to avoid pure powdered caffeine. Even a teaspoon could be lethal. It is equivalent to about 25 cups of regular coffee, the FDA says. In 2018, the FDA said supplements consisting of pure or highly concentrated caffeine in powder or liquid forms, often sold in bulk, are “generally unlawful” when sold directly to consumers.