General Mills, the food mega-corporation that owns Betty Crocker, Nature Valley, and basically every sweet cereal you ate and served your kids, has a startling new legal policy making it illegal to sue the company after you:
- download or print a coupon;
- “join” an online communities (which online communities is in question, but possibly including Facebook);
- subscribe to an email newsletter;
- or redeem a promotion or participate in any "offering."
In other words: It just became nearly impossible to get a deal on a General Mills product without forfeiting your rights to sue the company. Even if your kid with a peanut allergy eats a Fiber One bar with trace amounts of peanuts and gets sick. For this reason, the Times reports that the new terms could come under strict legal scrutiny.
This policy, known as "forced arbitration," is becoming common among companies seeking ways to prevent users and customers from joining together and suing for millions of dollars for things like false advertising. General Mills recently paid $8.5 million to settle a lawsuit over Yoplait Yoplus yogurt. In late 2012, it settled another suit over the word “strawberry” on label for Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups (a product which does not contain actual strawberries). A California judge recently refused to dismiss a case suing the Nature Valley brand over the word “natural," since its products contain some processed ingredients.
General Mills website, which currently resides under a banner warning customers of this new policy (not that many moms are checking out the Cocoa Puffs corporate site before printing a coupon), directs customers to a legal page with more information:
Of course, your decision to do any of these things (i.e., to use or join our site or online community, to subscribe to our emails, to download or print a digital coupon, to enter a sweepstakes or contest, to take advantage of a promotional offer, or otherwise participate in any other General Mills offering) is entirely voluntary. But if you choose to do any of these things, then you agree to be bound by this Agreement.
In other words: Your decision to interact with our company is totally optional. Your right to sue after that interaction, however, is not.
Forced arbitration has a somewhat creepy and illustrious history from phone contracts to Hooters' employment agreements. In 2008, Mother Jones reported that an East Texas Whataburger posted a sign on its window stating that anybody stepping foot inside the door immediately forfeited their right to sue the company. “Although this is the first case I’ve seen of a food company moving in this direction, others will follow — why wouldn’t you?” Julia Duncan, director of federal programs and an arbitration expert at the American Association for Justice, told the New York Times. “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.”