Online shopping giant Amazon has been fined £65,000 after being found guilty of attempting to ship dangerous lithium ion batteries and flammable aerosols by air.
The retailer was convicted at Southwark Crown Court of four counts of causing dangerous goods to be delivered for carriage in an aircraft, a breach of air safety regulations.
The items - three batteries, a small can of Dove deodorant and a Tresemme hair mousse - were destined for flights within and outside the UK in four shipments and were ordered between November 2013 and June 2015.
They were only discovered when cargoes were screened by Royal Mail and UPS ahead of their intended departures and intercepted before they could reach the aircraft.
Amazon UK Services Ltd said they were “inadvertent” breaches of rules and were “neither wilful nor reckless”, a result of misclassification caused by human error.
But Martin Goudie, prosecuting on behalf of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), said there was a potential risk if the items had ended up being carried on a plane, and that strict regulations and Amazon’s own safety rules meant it was not merely a “speculative risk”.
He told the court: “Under the right circumstances the batteries, even new, undamaged batteries, could overheat, potentially causing burns, explosion or a fire.”
The company had faced another seven similar charges but was cleared of one while another six will lie on file after jurors were unable to reach verdicts on them.
Amazon was fined after it was revealed the UK subsidiary had a turnover of just under £1 billion in 2015, with a profit of £38 million.
Sentencing the firm, Judge Michael Grieve QC said while there were “few and comparatively minor contraventions” he had to take into account the “massive resources of the company”.
He said: “In my view the jury’s verdict reflects a finding of systemic failure, albeit as a result of human error.”
The prosecution was brought by the CAA under the Air Navigation (Dangerous Goods) Regulations 2002, which outlines how such items must be handled when transported by air.
This includes how they must be classified, packed, marked, labelled and documented - as well as the dangerous goods training which must be completed by the people sending them.
From 2013 Royal Mail sent letters to Amazon warning about possible breaches of the rules.
The court heard Amazon tried to ship a lithium ion battery to Jersey on a day before January 7 2014, and a flammable gas aerosol - the Dove deodorant - to Romania on a similar date.
Another shipment, destined for Cork in Ireland on a day before July 17 the same year, contained the Tresemme mousse canister, while Amazon tried to send two more lithium ion batteries to Belfast in Northern Ireland between May 12 and June 3 last year.
Mr Goudie said the breaches were indicative of a “system error” within Amazon, because the system that determined whether goods should be classified as dangerous was allowed to rely on incorrect information.
He said: “You can’t blame the human within Amazon if they are not being provided with the ability to know what they are actually dealing with.”
But Stephen Spence, defending, denied there were systemic failings, saying if there were then many more failings would have likely been discovered.
Amazon has no previous convictions or cautions, he said, is at the forefront of pushing safety standards and that other much smaller companies have made much larger mistakes.
He said: “Amazon is not a company that has sat back and done nothing. It is certainly not a company that was blind to the potential problems.”
Mr Spence added: “We are not talking about Amazon lugging a propane canister onto a plane. They are everyday household items, and one should pay perspective to that.”
And he said there was no evidence to suggest that any of the items had been destined for passenger flights.
Judge Grieve told the court that Amazon was “in no way complacent” about the issue of dangerous goods, but he said it may be necessary to introduce a system of physical review for lithium ion batteries and aerosols if contraventions are not to be repeated.
In a statement after its conviction earlier this week Amazon said: “The safety of the public, our customers, employees and partners is an absolute priority.
“We ship millions of products every week and are confident in the sophisticated technologies and processes we have developed to detect potential shipping hazards.
“We are constantly working to further improve and will continue to work with the CAA in this area.”