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General Mills moves to limit exposure to lawsuits

  • Article by: STEPHANIE STROM
  • New York Times
  • April 16, 2014 - 10:33 PM

Might downloading a 50-cent coupon for Cheerios cost you legal rights?

General Mills Inc., the Golden Valley-based 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 a variety of 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 e-mail or go through arbitration to seek relief, according to the new terms posted on its site.

In language added Tuesday, General Mills seemed to go even further, suggesting that buying its products would bind consumers to those terms.

“We’ve updated our Privacy Policy,” the company wrote in a thin, gray bar across the top of its home page. “Please note we also have new Legal Terms which require all disputes related to the purchase or use of any General Mills product or service to be resolved through binding arbitration.”

The change in legal terms, which occurred shortly after a judge refused to dismiss a case brought against the company by consumers in California, 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,” said Julia Duncan, an arbitration expert at the American Association for Justice, a group representing plaintiff trial lawyers.

General Mills declined to make anyone available for an interview about the changes.

“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.”

What if a child allergic to peanuts ate a product that contained trace amounts of nuts but mistakenly did not include that information on its packaging? Food recalls for mislabeling are not uncommon.

“When you’re talking about food, you’re also talking about things that can kill people,” said Scott Nelson, a lawyer at Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group. “There is a huge difference in the stakes, between the benefit you’re getting from this supposed contract you’re entering into by, say, using the company’s website to download a coupon, and the rights they’re saying you’re giving up. That makes this agreement a lot broader than others out there.”

© 2014 Star Tribune