General Mills is trying to force consumer safety and other disputes about the company's products into binding arbitration, a policy that consumer advocates find most distasteful.
On its website, the company explains that consumers who engage the company in any number of ways could be forced to give up their right to sue the company. The list includes simply accessing content on General Mills' websites, joining sites as a member, joining the company's online community, subscribing to e-mail newsletters, and downloading or printing a digital coupon. It also affects people who enter a sweepstakes or contest, redeem a promotional offer, or otherwise participate in any other General Mills offering.
In other words, a person could give up their right to sue the company simply by going to its website to read the new policy.
News of the General Mills policy prompted critics and consumers to quickly deride it on the Internet and news sites.
"If I were a consumer my take-away from this would be that General Mills is more concerned about liability than quality products," said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based products liability attorney who has sued food companies for decades. "And I wouldn't buy their products, period."
General Mills officials say the company's dispute-resolution policy first tries to settle complaints through informal negotiation and if that fails then binding arbitration.
In some cases, they say, consumers covered by the policy could seek relief in a small claims court. But otherwise, the company and consumers would waive the right to litigate any dispute in court and before a jury.
Consumer advocates and product liability attorneys say General Mills is trying to reduce its exposure to lawsuits, especially class-action lawsuits. The company has been subject to litigation over health claims on its labels.
Food companies often issue recalls over various contamination problems, either with bacteria or ingredients not mentioned on labels.
Marler said arbitration stacks the deck against consumers. Other attorneys said General Mills could lead consumers to unwittingly give up their legal rights.
"All you have to do is go on the website and suddenly you're bound and they kick you out of court if something happens with their product," said Linda Lipsen, CEO of the American Association for Justice, an organization for lawyers representing plaintiffs. "The system they have imposed upon consumers is rigged and secretive and completely unfair."
General Mills spokesman Mike Siemienas said people are misinterpreting and exaggerating the scope of the policy. No one is precluded from suing General Mills merely by purchasing products in stores, he wrote in an email.
But Siemienas said, "should an individual subscribe to one of our publications or download coupons, these terms would apply. But even then, the policy would not and does not preclude a consumer from pursuing a claim. It merely determines a forum for pursuing a claim. And arbitration is a straightforward and efficient way to resolve such disputes."
University of Minnesota law professor William McGeveran said courts have been allowing companies to increasingly confine consumer disputes to arbitration. But he said the General Mills policy goes further.
"I've never seen an attempt to put website terms of service this broad in that they reach off the web and into your cupboard," McGeveran said. "It purports to give up your right to sue about purchases you make that you don't make through the website, just by virtue of having been to the website. So, that would be uncharted territory."
McGeveran said General Mills would be breaking new legal ground if its policy were affirmed by a court.
But Scott Nelson, a lawyer at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen doesn't think General Mills will be able to escape lawsuits by claiming consumers give up their rights to sue when they download coupons or accept e-mails.
"But that's what they're trying to do," Nelson said. "And because the courts have been so willing to accept arbitration agreements lately. It's worth the try, from their point of view."