Amazon Urges Pa. Judge To Toss Student Suicide Claims

November 8, 2016 | Law360

Matt Fair

Amazon.com Inc. urged a Pennsylvania state judge on Monday to reject claims it should be held responsible after a university student used its website to purchase illegal cyanide products she ultimately used to end her life.

The online retailer said in a motion for summary judgment that Pennsylvania law clearly holds that suicides are an unforeseeable consequence that brake the chain of causation for any product.

“The mere sale of a product generally cannot impose a legal duty to prevent the misuse of that product,” the company argued. “Otherwise, any retailer could be liable for any product that could be intentionally used to commit suicide. Under such a regime, a department store could be held liable for a decedent customer’s intentional use of a kitchen knife to commit suicide.”

Amazon was sued in July 2015 after University of Pennsylvania nursing student Arya Singh committed suicide in February 2013 using soluble cyanide salts she purchased from a Thai company through Amazon’s website.

While Amazon had a policy in place at the time barring such items from being sold in the United States, the complaint said the company nonetheless allowed the Thai merchant to sell cyanide products through its website at least 51 times prior to Arya’s purchase.

The suit said that 11 of those sales resulted in the deaths of the purchasers.

The complaint also leveled claims against the university for what it described as “unsympathetic, hostile and at times vindictive” behavior as Singh struggled to deal with an on-campus sexual assault she had suffered two years before her death.

Amazon’s motion acknowledged that there was an exception allowing for liability in instances when a defendant ignores a clear duty to prevent an individual from committing suicide, but said it clearly did not apply to Singh’s case.

The company instead argued that it had no control over the material sold by the Thai merchant that used Amazon as a middleman to reach international customers.

“Amazon indisputably never had possession, custody or control of the cyanide allegedly shipped to [Singh,]” the motion said.

The university also filed a summary judgment motion on Monday arguing it had no duty to prevent her suicide.

“In Pennsylvania, it is well-settled that the relationship between university and student is not a ‘special relationship,’ creating a duty to control student conduct such that liability for the student’s own conduct follows,” the school argued. “When confronted with the question whether a university has liability following student self-harm, courts across the country have come to similar conclusions, refusing to hold the university responsible.”

An attorney for Singh’s family declined to comment when contacted on Tuesday.

Singh is represented by Stewart Cohen, Jon Rubinstein and James Begley of Cohen Placitella & Roth PC.

Amazon is represented by Howard Klein and Andrew Garden of Conrad O'Brien.

The university is represented by Jeremy Mishkin, Carrie Sarhangi and John Myers of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP.

The case is Sujata Singh etc. v. Amazon.com Inc. et al., case number 150200939, in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County.

--Editing by Breda Lund.