General Mills reverses itself on consumers' right to sue the company

Cheerios at 70
In this June 16, 2011 photo, boxes of Cheerios are shown in a store in Akron, N.Y.
David Duprey/AP

General Mills is stepping back from a controversial approach that consumer advocates said would have taken away customers' rights to sue the company.

The company had put together a terms of service on its website that required consumers to agree to binding arbitration in consumer disputes. That could have affected anyone accessing content on General Mills' websites, subscribing to e-mail newsletters or downloading a digital coupon.

In an email sent to reporters on Sunday, company spokesperson Mike Siemienas made the announcement that the company reverted to the old terms of service. A blog post ot the company's website apologized to customers and expressed sorrow that the company "even started down this path." But it also said arbitration clauses don't force anyone to waive a valid legal claim.

"They only specify a cost-effective means of resolving such matters. At no time was anyone ever precluded from suing us by purchasing one of our products at a store or liking one of our Facebook pages. That was either a mischaracterization - or just very misunderstood."

Siemienas declined to comment further.

Scott Nelson, a lawyer at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said he's pleased that General Mills appears to have responded to consumer pressure and backed off the arbitration clause. He said the controversy has helped many people notice for the first time just how common these arbitration clauses are becoming with many large companies.

"It would be nice if we could build on this little moment of empowerment for consumers and keep the spotlight on other people who have not backed down," Nelson said. "These arbitration clauses get enforced every day, and often that means that consumers don't really have a practical way of enforcing their rights."

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