Companies want customers to engage with them online as if they’re just another pal on Facebook or Twitter, one that can offer downloadable coupons and promote contests with attractive prizes. But in new language recently added to General Mills’ website, consumers who interact with the company online will be agreeing to give up the right to sue the company in the future.
In the newly updated Legal Terms, General Mills doesn’t mince any words in outlining what kinds of actions will bind customers to arbitration. Basically, if you download coupons, enter a General Mills sweepstakes or interact with it at all, you can’t sue — not if you get a chunk of glass in your bowl of Wheaties and not if you think a product has misleading labeling. Specifically (bolding ours):
These terms are a binding legal agreement (“Agreement”) between you and General Mills. In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our websites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest, redeeming a promotional offer, or otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering, you are agreeing to these terms.
While there’s no reason to guess why a major company would seek to protect itself from lawsuits, in this case the change in terms happened shortly after a judge refused to dismiss a suit against General Mills by consumers in California claiming that the “100% Natural” claim on Nature Valley granola bar packaging is false and deceptive. Those products contain processed and genetically engineered ingredients, the judge said in allowing the case to continue.
The NYT points out that while other companies have sought to impose what some call “forced arbitration” on consumers — AT&T’s legal win in 2011 forbidding class-action lawsuits paved the way for many others — this might be the first major food company to do so.
General Mills declined to be interviewed by the NYT about the changes, instead saying in a statement that’s it a great way to resolve things for consumers — they won’t have to pay for any silly legal battles as the company will foot the arbitration bill most of the time:
“While it rarely happens, arbitration is an efficient way to resolve disputes — and many companies take a similar approach. We even cover the cost of arbitration in most cases. So this is just a policy update, and we’ve tried to communicate it in a clear and visible way.”
The reason this is so noteworthy when compared with forced arbitration in the mobile industry or in credit card disputes lies in the fact that these are products we eat, products that could include health risks if there’s mislabeled packaging,for example.
So a person who’s allergic to peanuts and eats a cereal that failed to list peanuts as an ingredient? If he gets sick or dies, his family might not be able to sue if General Mills shows he “Liked” the company on Facebook.
“When you’re talking about food, you’re also talking about things that can kill people,” a lawyer at Public Citizen explains to the NYT. “There is a huge difference in the stakes, between the benefit you’re getting from this supposed contract you’re entering into by, say, using the company’s website to download a coupon, and the rights they’re saying you’re giving up. That makes this agreement a lot broader than others out there.”
General Mills has a track record of just the kind of class-action lawsuits consumers can bring,including a lawsuit it settled for $8.5 million over positive health claims made on the packaging of its Yoplait Yoplus yogurt last year. Then there was a suit in 2012 it settled by taking the word “strawberry” off its packages of Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups, because they didn’t contain any actual strawberries.
It won’t be a total cakewalk for General Mills to prevent lawsuits, however, as arbitration experts say courts will likely make the company prove that a customer knew of the policy before bringing a case against it. The policy is so broadly written that there are likely many legal issues that will be raised the next time someone tries to sue.
For now, if you want to protect your right to sue General Mills at any point in the future, you can opt out of the arbitration agreement by informing General Mills with written notice by emailing it at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your first and last name and the year you were born in the email.
But again, you’ll also have to not use any of its sites or communities, unsubscribe to any emails, avoid participating in any contests and don’t download coupons. Basically, pretend General Mills doesn’t exist online.
When ‘Liking’ a Brand Online Voids the Right to Sue [New York Times]