This article originally ran in Law360 on July 27, 2015.
Amazon.com Inc. is among a group of defendants facing claims filed in a Philadelphia court on Wednesday over a University of Pennsylvania student’s suicide after the woman was able to procure the illegal chemicals used in her death from an overseas merchant through the online retailer’s website.
A complaint filed in the Court of Common of Philadelphia County on Wednesday accused Amazon of allowing Penn student Arya Singh to purchase soluble cyanide salts from a Thai company in the months before she used the chemicals to commit suicide in her dorm room in February 2013.
“Despite having a policy and procedure of prohibiting through its website offers and sales of prohibited items, illegal products and banned hazardous substances in the United States, including but not limited to cyanide products, Amazon failed to enforce that policy and procedure,” the complaint said.
The suit also targets the Ivy League school for what the complaint called “unsympathetic, hostile and at times vindictive” behavior at the hands of university employees as Singh struggled to deal with an on-campus sexual assault she had suffered two years earlier.
According to the complaint, Singh was sexually assaulted by a fellow student in her university dorm room in January 2011. The assault was reported to Philadelphia law enforcement, but the city’s Office of District Attorney declined to prosecute the matter.
The complaint said that an internal investigation by the university’s Office of Student Conduct resulted in the accused attacker agreeing to a set of sanctions that would require him to avoid contact with Singh and place the two in separate dormitories.
However, the suit said that it took the university a month after the incident to begin its investigation and that the inquiry was delayed as the school worked to implement new policies for dealing with sexual assault accusations.
The complaint said that Singh was seeking psychological help for depression, anxiety and nightmares that she was experiencing as a result of the incident.
Alongside the the mental and emotional trauma of the incident, the complaint said that that Singh began drinking heavily and that her academic performance began to suffer.
A November 2011 hospitalization for extreme intoxication resulted in a request by the university that Singh seek help through the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives, but the complaint said that there was no follow-up after an initial appointment.
“During this time period, trustees did not provide any additional services to [Singh] despite knowing that she had been sexually assaulted earlier in the year and was having serious personal and academic issues related to the assault,” the complaint said.
The Office of Student Conduct was ultimately faced with several complaints against Singh over allegations both that she had failed to return an ID badge and headset during her tenure as an intern at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and that she had falsified time sheets and failed to complete required duties as part of a fellowship program run by the university’s school of nursing.
In September 2012, the school placed a disciplinary hold on Singh’s academic records after she failed to respond to the complaints.
Singh ultimately sought a hearing to dispute the charges, but she was unable to register for classes for the spring 2013 semester. Her poor performance in school resulted in Singh being placed on academic probation in January 2013.
The complaint said that without being able to register for classes, Singh was informed that she would have to vacate campus housing by Feb. 8.
She was found unresponsive in her room that afternoon and prounounced dead a short time later at a nearby hospital.
The complaint said that Singh had purchased the cyanide products in December 2012 from a Thai company selling products through Amazon. The Seattle-based online retailer had a policy preventing such items from being sold in the United States, but the complaint said that Amazon 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 said that just days before Singh’s suicide, Amazon changed its policies and procedures to block all sales of cyanide products.
A university spokesman declined to comment when reached on Monday, and representatives from Amazon did not immediately return a message from a reporter.
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, Pennsylvania.
--Editing by Stephen Berg.
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