Might downloading a 50-cent coupon for Cheerios cost you legal rights?
General Mills, maker of cereals like Cheerios and Chex as well as brands like Bisquick and Betty Crocker, has quietly added language to its website to alert consumers that they give up their right to sue the company if they download coupons, "join" it in online communities like Facebook, enter a company-sponsored sweepstakes or contest or interact with it in other ways.
Instead, anyone who has received anything that could be construed as a benefit and who then has a dispute with the company over its products will have to use informal negotiation via email or go through arbitration to seek relief, according to the new terms posted on its site.
The change made General Mills one of the first, if not the first, major food companies to seek to impose what legal experts call "forced arbitration" on consumers.
"Although this is the first case I've seen of a food company moving in this direction, others will follow — why wouldn't you?" said Julia Duncan, an arbitration expert at the American Association for Justice, a trade group representing plaintiff trial lawyers. "It's essentially trying to protect the company from all accountability, even when it lies, or say, an employee deliberately adds broken glass to a product."
General Mills declined to make anyone available for an interview. "While it rarely happens, arbitration is an efficient way to resolve disputes — and many companies take a similar approach," the company said in a statement. "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."
A growing number of companies have adopted similar policies over the years, especially after a 2011 Supreme Court decision, AT&T Mobility vs. Concepcion, that paved the way for businesses to bar consumers claiming fraud from joining together in a single arbitration. The decision allowed companies to forbid class-action lawsuits with the use of a standard-form contract requiring that disputes be resolved through informal one-on-one arbitration.
Credit card and mobile phone companies have included such limitations on consumers in their contracts.