Your right to sue General Mills equals a coupon for Lucky Charms
Yesterday, food conglomerate General Mills made a peculiar update to its policies with regards to legal disputes. Effectively, as part of the agreement, consumers cannot bring class action lawsuits against General Mills. Instead, the two parties settle any dispute they may have in an informal one-on-one session before an independent arbitrator, rather than the U.S. legal system. From a corporate perspective, this makes perfect sense, as these arbitrations generally cost less than going to court. The issue isn't necessarily this forced arbitration as it is utilized by multiple businesses, often appearing in contracts or the terms of service agreements that you have likely spent most of your life ignoring. Additionally, requiring disputes be handled by this type of arbitration through a standard-form contract was upheld a few years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. What is particularly egregious about General Mills' case is how broadly it defines the terms of its agreement.
The newly updated policy, found on General Mills' website, reads, "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." To put it more concisely, printing that coupon discounts your purchase of Lucky Charms, but also discounts your right to legal action.
The impetus for the move may have come from the recent class action lawsuits filed against General Mills. They recently had to pay out $8.5 million to settle lawsuits over health claims made on packages of Yoplait Yoplus yogurt. Back in 2012, they had to remove the word "strawberry" from Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups because the product did not actually have any strawberries. Currently, they are facing a lawsuit over their Nature Valley line because the labels read "100% Natural," despite containing artificial ingredients, and have failed to get the case dismissed.
These lawsuits may sound somewhat frivolous, and, to a certain extent, they probably are just the result of some people seeing if they can get any money out of a rather petty complaint. However, this does not justify the way General Mills has decided to handle it. Virtually prohibiting customers from filing lawsuits could essentially absolve them from responsibility when they do violate FDA regulations. Take a hypothetical example in which General Mills releases a new cereal that contains traces of peanuts, but contrary to FDA regulations, they do not label the cereal as such. Even if people suffer allergic reactions or die as a result, a class action lawsuit could not be filed against General Mills, despite clearly breaking the law, because the consumer got 50 cents off from a promotional sale. Those affected would still have legal recourse through the informal arbitrations, but that would still need to pay for counsel and would get only a portion of the settlement it the case goes to court.
Perhaps the strangest part about General Mills' new policy, and what will likely be questioned in the future, is how it effectively connects two mutually exclusive actions. For example, deciding to buy Angry Birds on your phone may require you to agree to certain terms. However, that transaction and any terms that come with it have no bearing if you were to buy another Rovio product. Similarly, my decision to sign up for the General Mills email newsletter is completely unrelated to my decision to buy Cheerios. Yet, according to the wording of this new policy, the former action legally prevents me from going to court if those Cheerios happen to be filled with broken glass.
What this boils down to is the balance between consumer protection and corporations wanting to minimize litigation. However, my legal protections as a consumer should not be worth a 2-for-1 deal on cereal, and companies should not be using such broad agreement terms to absolve themselves of responsibility.
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