When Stephanie Strom of The New York Times wrote “When ‘Liking’ a Brand Online Voids the Right to Sue,” it caught my attention. At first I thought General Mills could not be serious about trying to deny its customers the right to their day in court if wronged by a General Mills product. I mean, why would a company focus on saving itself from a potentially bad outcome when it should be focused on making foods that are healthful, safe and honestly labeled? And, it seemed at first blush the so-called “Arbitration Clause” had the limited application to using the General Mills website. The policy reads:

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.

I thought the arbitration clause certainly would not also involve a situation where a General Mills product sickened or killed a consumer with a foodborne pathogen. But, a bit further down the policy, the desire of General Mills becomes much clearer – it wants to deny its consumers the rights of a civil jury trial even in situations resulting in personal injury or death. The policy continues:

3.  Dispute resolution; binding arbitration

This Section 3 is intended to be interpreted broadly to encompass all disputes or claims arising out of this Agreement or your purchase or use of any General Mills product or service for personal or household use. As noted above, “General Mills” includes any and all of General Mills’ affiliated companies or brands. These affiliated brands include, but are not limited to, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Green Giant, Yoplait, Nature Valley, Old El Paso, Progresso, Hamburger Helper, Toaster Strudel, Gold Medal, Bisquick, Totino’s, Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms, Kix, Trix, Cocoa Puffs, Total, Wheaties, Fiber One, Chex, other General Mills Big G cereals, Box Tops For Education, and all other brands listed here: http://generalmills.com/Legal_Notice_Brands.aspx

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.

Well, it seems pretty clear that General Mills is intent on having consumers – even those who may have suffered a serious injury – seek redress only in a forum of General Mills’ choosing. Do not think for a second that this in any way benefits a sickened consumer. By adopting this policy, General Mills has clearly decided to focus on saving itself from litigation and not focus on what keeps it out of a courtroom, namely focusing on making foods that are healthful, safe and honestly labeled. If General Mills would focus on those three things, the likelihood of spending time in a courtroom would be of far less concern to it and much better for its consumers.

  • I’m not a lawyer, but courts have been generally down on these sorts of one-sided arbitration agreements, haven’t they? Even though SCOTUS has been pushing arbitration down our throats the last few decades?

    The whole concept of arbitration when you have non-equal parties is horribly wrong. And it was never intended for this type of situation, either.

    Disappointing, but not surprising.

    • Abby

      Check out the movie “Hot Coffee,” it really goes into the dangers of these sorts of binding contracts where one’s right to be heard in a court of law is signed away. How much does General Mills think your rights are? Coupons worth…

  • Dave Walpuck

    Bill-Excellent article. Keep them coming.

  • Karen- Charlotte

    If that is the attitude from Geneal Mills – I certainly will do my best and advise other I know to refrain from buying any of their products.

    • BB

      You’re better off not eating their products-all they make is GMO junk food.

  • Carlo Silvestr

    Seems to me rather typical of what’s derisively being called “Big Food” and their lackeys like the GMA — our way or the highway. We can do anything we want and to hell with you. You don’t have the right to know what’s in our products, you don’t have the right to any type of redress for wrongs even if we’re at fault except for the redress of our choosing. What a bunch of crap! Buy local & buy small!

  • Dear Mr. Marler, you hit the nail! I’ll keep as an wonderful phrase: “By adopting this policy, General Mills has clearly decided to focus on saving itself from litigation and not focus on what keeps it out of a courtroom, namely focusing on making foods that are healthful, safe and honestly labeled. If General Mills would focus on those three things, the likelihood of spending time in a courtroom would be of far less concern to it and much better for its consumers.”

  • It was alarming reading this article. However, if you keep reading the “Legal Terms” of the GM webpage, it is just unbelievable! “you and General Mills both waive, to the fullest extent allowed by law, the right to a jury trial and any claims relating to a Dispute to recover punitive or exemplary damages and any right to pursue any claims on a class or consolidated basis or in a representative capacity”. “Any arbitration will be confidential, and neither you nor General Mills may disclose the existence, content, or results of any arbitration, except as may be required by law or for purposes of enforcement of the arbitration award.”.
    Is this legal?

    • Alex

      Only if you have read it beforehand. It’s why that little tickbox at the bottom of each legal jargon text box is so important. If the terms and conditions of a licensing or user agreement violate local or federal laws, they are unenforceable and used only as a legal scare tactic to promote more settlements out of court.

  • seeareess

    Hey,
    nobody can sue me because I said so! I don’t think you can disclaim
    liability by stating that you disclaim liability. Buying a box of
    cereal can’t be construed as an agreement to abandon legal rights.
    Except maybe in the Delaware circuit or some other corporate friendly
    venue.

  • Kitsy Hahn

    We shouldn’t eat any of their processed, chemical-riddled garbage in the first place. Stick with whole foods only. http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20090323/7-rules-for-eating