As first reported in The New York Times, the food giant put language on its Web site that virtually any consumer acceptance of a General Mills offer meant that the right to sue or participate in a class action was waived in favor of mandatory, one-to-company arbitration. In addition to downloading a coupon, a consumer could be required to accept this condition by liking a General Mills product on Facebook, entering one of the company's contests, or anything else that might be couched as a benefit from the company.
The specific new Web site language read in part:
"In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our Web sites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our e-mail 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."
The Fine Print
In fact, the Times noted that the new privacy language appeared to indicate that even buying one of the products from General Mills' many brands -- which include Betty Crocker and Cheerios -- could similarly mean an acceptance of such terms.
The new policy would have required one-on-one arbitration if, for instance, a customer with a life-threatening allergy ate that ingredient in a not-well-labeled product, or if you ate a poisoned product which a worker in the company's factory deliberately tampered with. In addition to requiring arbitration, it would have forbidden consumers from joining together to save legal costs by participating in a class-action lawsuit.
The policy change last week raised a widespread consumer outcry and calls for a boycott of General Mills products. The company, caught off-guard by the reaction, on Monday retracted the new policy.
"As has been widely reported, General Mills recently posted a revised set of legal terms on our websites," a General Mills spokeswoman wrote on a company blog. "Those terms -- and our intentions -- were widely misread, causing concern among consumers. So we’ve listened -- and we’re changing them back to what they were before."
Even Entering a Restaurant
While General Mills' short-lived new legal policy was expanding the forced arbitration agreement, the practice has become popular in varying degrees at a growing number of companies. According to consumer organization Public Citizen, a growing number of companies are using the fact that virtually no one reads the fine print to take away consumers' rights to sue for injuries, fraud , or other causes.
The companies cited by Public Citizen that are requiring forced arbitration as a condition of most transactions include Direct TV, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, T-Mobile, Wells Fargo, Discover card, Chase, Charles Schwab, Sony, Dell, Toshiba, Starbucks, Patagonia, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Barnes & Noble, and many others.
But the trend does not only encompass some transaction you've undertaken, such as downloading a coupon or participating in a sweepstakes. In 2008, Mother Jones magazine reported about a Whataburger franchise in East Texas that displayed a sign on every entrance declaring that walking inside the restaurant constituted agreement that the person was giving up the right to sue for any reason, which might, of course, include food poisoning.