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.