Alexandra Heaton

Destroying the Independent Contractor Defense: Breaking down a $44 million verdict against Amazon

A South Carolina man was injured while riding his motorcycle on a rural road when one of Amazon’s trademark blue delivery vans turned in front of him. The person driving the Amazon-owned delivery van was directly employed by a local delivery company Amazon had contracted with to deliver packages on its behalf. Amazon refers to these companies as its Delivery Service Partners, and it has long sought to contractually shield itself from liability for the “last mile” delivery of its packages. Suit was filed against the local delivery service partner as well as, Inc. and its subsidiary Amazon Logistics, Inc. Amazon’s defense was simple: it was not responsible because the delivery driver was a direct employee of its delivery service partner—not Amazon directly. In December 2023, a conservative South Carolina jury found Amazon was not only vicariously liable for the DA’s negligence, but also that Amazon was grossly negligent in its hiring, supervision, and retention of the delivery driver, who was known to engage in distracted driving. The jury returned a $44.6 million verdict, including $30 million in punitive damages against Amazon. This case marked the first time Amazon tested with a jury the issue of whether the online retail and global logistics giant is responsible for injuries caused by one of its 285,000 delivery associates it calls independent contractors. This session will explore how and why Amazon was held responsible.

The first portion of the lecture will focus on pleadings and discovery and will discuss:

  • Internal documents
  • Crafting deposition exhibits with an eye towards trial
  • Creating red herrings in the discovery phase
  • Advancing the case with third party subpoenas

The second portion of the lecture will analyze trial strategy and include the following:

  • Motions in limine
  • Opening statement & case themes
  • Offensively addressing case weaknesses
  • Witnesses
    • Quality over quantity – knowing when to cut witnesses
    • Treating providers v. expert witnesses
    • Before & after witnesses
  • Critical trial exhibits
  • Closing argument
    • Structure
    • Jury empowerment on damages
    • Verdict form

The lecture will end with a brief discussion on post-trial strategy. It should be noted that all of Amazon’s internal operations and training documents are subject to a protective order and will be redacted or excluded from the materials.

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