Being injured by items bought online – what might stop your claim?

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Geoff (not his real name) is an electrician by trade who owns his own electrical company and as such is very experienced in using power tools both at work and at home. When he had a tree chopped down in his family home’s garden, Geoff needed something to grind down its remaining stump. Naturally, his first point of call was to search online.

After doing his research for the right tool he found a chainsaw blade wood carving disc which was advertised as being compatible with an angle grinder that he already owned. The disc was advertised as having ‘anti kick back action’, so Geoff happily ordered it from Amazon and it arrived within a couple of weeks. He attached the blade to the grinder and set to work. As soon as the blade touched the stump it kicked back with extreme force, flew out of his hands, and hit him in the shin.

Thankfully his wife and son were in the garden and they called for an ambulance. When the paramedics arrived they could see that the blade had broken his shinbone and calf bone, dislocated his ankle, and hurt his shin causing muscle damage.  It was a serious injury, and he was taken to hospital where the Plastics team removed all dead tissue and debris from the wound and tried to repair the leg, fitting Geoff with a backslab plaster cast. A couple of weeks later he returned to hospital where he was fitted with a full cast and told he would have to avoid carrying anything heavy for four weeks. He was signed off work and told that he would need lengthy rehabilitation, particularly for the damaged muscle. Unable to work, he had to pass on a new contract to another company.

Who was to blame for the accident?

Geoff’s accident should never have happened as the tool he used was supposedly specifically designed to prevent that type of injury. After researching he found out that the blade he had bought was in fact subject to a safety alert and was reported to present a risk of serious injury or fatality from the disc slipping or kicking back, just as it had done with him. He complained to Amazon who investigated and withdrew the product from their website, and he also contacted Trading Standards. He also found other reports of accidents involving the product, including a firefighter whose accident had been reported in the press. That’s when he decided to explore his legal rights and make a claim against the company that supplied the dangerous tool which had been responsible for his accident.

When Geoff and I met up to discuss what had happened, the claim seemed to be a straight-forward one. I was optimistic that the claim would be successful and that Geoff would be able to receive compensation for his loss of earnings and rehabilitation costs to get him back to work as soon as possible.

However, things did not go to plan. It transpired that the company who he had bought the product from had been the victim of identity fraud. The young lady who was the company director was shocked to find out that she was being blamed for selling a dangerous product that she knew nothing about. Trading Standards visited her and were satisfied that she was indeed an innocent victim and completely unaware that her company name had been used in this way.

Finding out who the claim was against

To pursue the claim I needed to find out where the product had come from and who was the real supplier. I relied on Trading Standards, but unfortunately on completing their investigations they concluded that the product had come from China and there was nobody in England that could be identified as being involved in the transaction. There was nothing more they could do, and frustratingly that also meant that it was not possible to pursue a claim for compensation for Geoff.

Not wanting to leave any stone unturned I referred the case to two different barristers to see if there were any other avenues that we could explore, such as a claim against Amazon on whose platform the product had been sold. Unfortunately, they both advised that there was no way of establishing liability against Amazon under the current law. The contract that a buyer has with Amazon when they buy a product from another company is limited to a contract for the use of the website, and not for the purchase of the product itself. Unless I could show that Amazon were aware that the product on sale was defective, they would not be held liable for Geoff’s claim.

The law hasn’t quite caught up to the online shopping boom

It seems that sometimes the law struggles to keep up with advances and changes to the way people conduct business in ‘real life’. When buying products on the internet you have to be careful to check who you are dealing with, but when buying from well-known websites like Amazon, most people would assume that they have some protection from situations like this and feel confident that the products they are buying are safe and the sellers genuine. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

One small consolation for Geoff is that I was pursuing his claim under a ‘No win no fee’ arrangement. That meant that he did not have to pay for any of the work I did for him. It is rare for me to have to report to a client that I have not been able to succeed in their claim, and very frustrating in a situation like this when my client was clearly the innocent victim of such a fraudulent and dangerous practice.

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