Regulator Seeks Massive Recall of Products Sold on Amazon

CPSC files complaint claiming hundreds of thousands of items present a safety hazard

An Amazon box in an Amazon facility. Photo: Rachel Jessen/Getty Images

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is attempting to force Amazon to recall hundreds of thousands of potentially hazardous products that are sold on its website.

In the 24-page administrative complaint (PDF) filed Wednesday, the CPSC said Amazon has a legal obligation to recall the products because they are allegedly defective and pose a serious risk of injury or death to consumers. The products cited in the complaint include carbon monoxide detectors, sleeper garments for children, and hair dryers.

Amazon has claimed for years that it serves only as an intermediary for other retailers’ sales and cannot be held liable for defective products.

More on Product Safety

“Today’s vote to file an administrative complaint against Amazon was a huge step forward for this small agency,” Robert Adler, acting CPSC chairman, said in a statement. “But it’s a huge step across a vast desert—we must grapple with how to deal with these massive third-party platforms more efficiently, and how best to protect the American consumers who rely on them.”

In response to the suit, an Amazon spokesperson said that consumer safety was a top priority, that Amazon has “an industry-leading recalls program,” and that the company is not clear why the CPSC had “filed a complaint seeking to force us to take actions almost entirely duplicative of those we’ve already taken.”

The decision to take action against Amazon is welcome, says William Wallace, Consumer Reports’ manager of safety policy.

“Amazon is not above the law, and safety must come first,” Wallace says. “It shouldn’t matter whether someone is shopping in person or online, and on Amazon, it shouldn’t matter whether someone is buying something directly from the company or from a third-party seller. People expect the products they buy for their homes to be safe and not leave them or their families at risk.”

Thousands of Products Involved

The CPSC’s four-member commission voted 3-1 to file the complaint, the agency’s press release said. The number of products alleged by the CPSC to be a potential safety risk is vast. It includes 24,000 carbon monoxide detectors that allegedly fail to sound an alarm; sleeper garments for children that allegedly violate safety standards to prevent burn injuries; and almost 400,000 hair dryers sold allegedly without a required device meant to protect consumers from electrocution.

“Although Amazon has taken certain action with respect to some of the named products,” the CPSC’s release said, “the complaint charges that those actions are insufficient.”

The products were sold under the company’s “Fulfilled by Amazon” network, where third-party retailers make the sale but the products are shipped from an Amazon warehouse. The CPSC claims Amazon meets the definition of a “distributor” under federal product safety law, and therefore should take action to remove the allegedly dangerous products from the marketplace.

The CPSC claims in the complaint that Amazon “unilaterally” removed some of the products from its website without consultation with the CPSC, and offered a refund to consumers in the form of an Amazon gift card credited to their account. The CPSC, however, said that response is insufficient.

The agency is asking for an order that requires Amazon to conduct a full recall of the allegedly dangerous products and to provide monthly reports summarizing incident data it receives, destroy the products in question, and provide status updates on how a recall is progressing. 

Amazon's Third-Party Status

The agency’s complaint marks a forceful entry by the federal government into the debate over whether Amazon can be legally held responsible for defective products sold on its website.

Courts have been divided on the issue for years. Just last month, the Supreme Court of Texas found (PDF) that Amazon could not be held liable under state law for injuries to a toddler who swallowed a remote-control battery.

But earlier this year, judges in California said that, contrary to Amazon’s assertion that it “merely provided an online storefront” for the retailer, it was “undisputed” that the company placed itself squarely in the middle of the sale.

“We are persuaded that Amazon’s own business practices make it a direct link in the vertical chain of distribution under California’s strict liability doctrine,” the judges ruled.

The CPSC’s Adler said he voted to file the complaint, though he did so with “great reluctance,” in part because the statute guiding the CPSC’s oversight isn’t clear on the issue of third-party retailers.

“That means that for every product for which CPSC determines a recall is necessary, a lengthy negotiation must first take place about the threshold question of whether that sales platform is even subject to our laws,” Adler said in his statement. “If they resist, that leaves the agency without a full partner in recall activities, since many of the suppliers to these platforms are not domestic companies or companies with the financial ability to conduct recalls.”

Adler called for third-party platforms like Amazon to work with the CPSC to develop a framework on how to handle products deemed unsafe.

“Clearly the current approach is not sustainable,” he said in the statement. “To continue product‐by‐product is like using an eyedropper to empty the ocean—ineffective, inefficient, and frustratingly insufficient to protect consumers.”

Wallace at CR said it’s clear the complaint came “only after drawn-out negotiations with Amazon, and there could have been much faster action if the company were cooperative. We’re also concerned that this step—while critical—may cover only a small portion of the potentially hazardous products that Amazon has manufactured, distributed, or sold.”

What to Know

The CPSC advises consumers to check for recalls on its website prior to making a purchase.

In addition, consumers can go to SaferProducts.gov, a repository of complaints filed to the CPSC by consumers and others on experiences they allege to have had with products. The CPSC urges consumers to report any incidents or injuries occurring after use of a product to the agency.


Head shot of Ryan Felton, a CR author of investigative reports and special projects

Ryan Felton

I'm an investigative journalist with an appetite to cover anything and everything. My job and goal is to dig into complicated issues that affect people's health, safety, and bottom line. I've covered everything from dangerous tires to subprime lending to corporate malfeasance. Got a tip? Drop me an email ( ryan.felton@consumer.org), or follow me on Twitter ( @ryanfelton) for my contact info on Signal.