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The New York Times reports this morning that General Mills "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 email or go through arbitration to seek relief, according to the new terms posted on its site."

Indeed, the Times writes, General Mills also is saying on its site that anyone who even buys any of its products, ranging from Cheerios to Bisquick, gives up their legal right to sue and instead must go to binding arbitration.

The move, according to the Times, "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." A 2011 Supreme Court decision paved the way for such an approach, which has been adopted by credit card and mobile phone companies, among others.

In a prepared statement to the Times, General Mills said, "While it rarely happens, arbitration is an efficient way to resolve disputes — and many companies take a similar approach … 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.”

However, Julia Duncan, director of federal programs and an arbitration expert at the American Association for Justice, a trade group representing plaintiff trial lawyers, tells the paper that the move is "essentially trying to protect the company from all accountability, even when it lies, or say, an employee deliberately adds broken glass to a product."

The Times writes that "General Mills amended its legal terms after a judge in California on March 26 ruled against its motion to dismiss a case brought by two mothers who contended that the company deceptively marketed its Nature Valley products as 'natural' when they contained processed and genetically engineered ingredients."
KC's View:
Wow. That's a pretty nifty legal argument - simply by doing business with us, you give up your right to sue.

Look, I'm not a lawyer. So I can't pretend to understand the rationale behind such a Supreme Court ruling, except to say that it seems to me that SCOTUS appears to be in a pro-business cycle. Which is good if you are a business. Not so much if you are a consumer or consumer advocate.

I guess what I don't know is whether such an approach by General Mills could have a chilling affect on its business, or at least its reputation. Because in essence, the company that just a few weeks ago said that it would eliminate GMOs from its Cheerios flagship brand - appearing for the moment to be on the side of the angels - now is saying that even if it violates that promise, consumers' options are limited. Which, to my mind, makes the promise just a little less impressive.