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December 23, 2015

Amazon Urges Pa. Judge To Rethink Student Suicide Row

Amazon urged a Pennsylvania state judge on Tuesday to reconsider tossing its preliminary objections to a lawsuit alleging the online retailer allowed a student to obtain illegal chemicals through its website that she used to take her own life, saying recovery is precluded by a matter of law. Inc. told the Court of Common Pleas that it should reconsider its Dec. 4 order denying the retail giant’s preliminary objections to a negligence suit brought by the family of a University of Pennsylvania nursing student who took her own life. Amazon argued that its demurrer raised a threshold legal issue, and the court’s denial without any explanation should be reconsidered because the legal question is critical to the sustainability of the suit.


The company argued Tuesday that the suit is precluded because Pennsylvania law holds the plaintiff cannot recover for the decedent’s suicide because no special relationship between Amazon and the decedent has been shown. Without that relationship, the company said, there is no chain of causation to allow recovery.


“No theory of law allows plaintiff to recover from Amazon on the basis of decedent’s independent decision to commit suicide,” the brief said. “The court should recognize this point of law, grant reconsideration, and dismiss the amended complaint against Amazon.”


But if the court continues to disagree, Amazon said, it should certify this controlling question of law for prompt interlocutory appellate review.


Amazon and the university were sued in July over the death of Arya Singh. According to court records, Singh killed herself in her dorm room at the university in February 2013 using soluble cyanide salts she purchased through Amazon from a Thai company.


The suit in Philadelphia County’s Court of Common Pleas targets Amazon for permitting the sale and the Ivy League university 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.


An amended complaint also includes the Thai companies as defendants.


Earlier this month, the court denied motions by the company and the school seeking to toss the suit, without an accompanying opinion. Amazon had argued that Pennsylvania state law did not allow defendants to be found liable for negligence in instances of suicide while the university contended that there was no special relationship between the student and the school that vested it with a duty to try to prevent her suicide.


Amazon now argues that the court should reconsider its decision because the company’s objections, if granted, would preclude the suit from proceeding any further against it. The retailer said the plaintiff has failed in her briefings to show that a caretaker or custodial relationship existed between Singh and the company, thereby blocking any negligence claims.


The company also stated that if this matter should proceed, it “will establish that it did not sell or supply the cyanide and that the cyanide was actually sold and sent from Thailand by the Thailand defendants.”


An attorney for Singh did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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. Inc. et al., case number 150200939, in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.


— Additional reporting by Brandon Lowrey and Matt Fair. Editing by Ben Guilfoy.


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