The New York Times last week published an eye-opening story about General Mills, the big cereal maker. It noted that after being stung in court by a consumer class action, the company updated its legal terms to say that any beef you have with the company can only be pursued through informal negotiations or mandatory arbitration — no lawsuits (other than small claims) allowed.
It announced these changes at GeneralMills.com, in fine print at the top the page:
The key part of the new legal terms provides:
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.
ANY DISPUTE OR CLAIM MADE BY YOU AGAINST GENERAL MILLS ARISING OUT OF OR RELATING TO THIS AGREEMENT OR YOUR PURCHASE OR USE OF ANY GENERAL MILLS SERVICE OR PRODUCT (INCLUDING GENERAL MILLS PRODUCTS PURCHASED AT ONLINE OR PHYSICAL STORES FOR PERSONAL OR HOUSEHOLD USE) REGARDLESS OF WHETHER SUCH DISPUTE OR CLAIM IS BASED IN CONTRACT, TORT, STATUTE, FRAUD, MISREPRESENTATION, OR ANY OTHER LEGAL THEORY (TOGETHER, A “DISPUTE”) WILL BE RESOLVED BY INFORMAL NEGOTIATIONS OR THROUGH BINDING ARBITRATION, AS DESCRIBED BELOW.
So, merely printing a coupon for a GM product, “liking” them on Facebook, or perhaps just buying a single package of Cheerios, Yoplait yogurt, Gold Medal flour, or a can of Green Giant peas will automatically mean that you give up your right to individually sue the company, and cannot participate as a member of a class action lawsuit.
The company is letting people opt-out of these provisions, but once you use any of the companies’ websites or print another coupon, for example, you are on the hook again.
While one could interpret the language of their agreement to only be triggered when a consumer uses their websites, downloads a coupon, or otherwise interacts with the company, the broad nature of the restriction — possibly being triggered by a purchasing a product — will surely come under legal scrutiny. How can you be held to an agreement you never saw or actually agreed to?
When asked to comment on the company’s new anti-consumer policy, all the Jolly Green Giant would say is:
However, the company had a change of heart over this past weekend, cancelled the new terms including all references to arbitration, and posted this statement on their blog:
“As has been widely reported, General Mills recently posted a revised set of Legal Terms on our websites. Those terms – and our intentions – were widely misread, causing concern among consumers.
So we’ve listened – and we’re changing them back to what they were before.
We rarely have disputes with consumers – and arbitration would have simply streamlined how complaints are handled. Many companies do the same, and we felt it would be helpful.
But consumers didn’t like it.
So we’ve reverted back to our prior terms. There’s no mention of arbitration, and the arbitration provisions we had posted were never enforced. Nor will they be. We stipulate for all purposes that our recent Legal Terms have been terminated, that the arbitration provisions are void, and that they are not, and never have been, of any legal effect.
That last bit is from our lawyers.
We’ll just add that we never imagined this reaction. Similar terms are common in all sorts of consumer contracts, and arbitration clauses don’t cause anyone to waive a valid legal claim. They only specify a cost-effective means of resolving such matters. At no time was anyone ever precluded from suing us by purchasing one of our products at a store or liking one of our Facebook pages. That was either a mischaracterization – or just very misunderstood.
Not that any of that matters now.
On behalf of our company and our brands, we would also like to apologize. We’re sorry we even started down this path. And we do hope you’ll accept our apology. We also hope that you’ll continue to download product coupons, talk to us on social media, or look for recipes on our websites.” –Kirstie Foster, Director of External Communications
Nothing like bad press to convince a company to do the right thing.