NPR Story
2:12 pm
Thu April 17, 2014

General Mills' New Privacy Policy Restricts Consumers' Right To Sue

If you download a coupon for Cheerios or Cocoa Puffs, or “like” a General Mills product on Facebook, you may be barred from suing the company.

General Mills has changed its privacy policy. The policy’s new legal terms require consumers who interact with the company to use informal negotiation or arbitration rather than sue the company if they have a dispute.

As Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, the new terms suggest that even buying General Mills products could void the right to sue.

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

General Mills, the company that makes everything from Cheerios and Wheaties to Green Giant Frozen Vegetables and Yoplait yogurt, has changed its privacy policy. The new terms warn consumers that they give up certain rights to sue the company if they download General Mills coupons, or enter a company's sweepstakes or even like the company on Facebook.

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He joins us from the NPR studios in New York. Derek, tell us more. I mean, they say that in order to have - settle dispute with the company after doing anything like buying something with a coupon, you have to do it through binding arbitration. You can't sue?

DEREK THOMPSON: You cannot sue. General Mills, as you said, is a food mega corp. You may eat it every single day. It owns Betty Crocker, Nature Valley, Pillsbury, basically every sweet cereal you ate and serve your kids - Golden Grahams, Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs. The startling new legal policy does make it illegal to sue the company after you download or print a coupon, join an online community - it's not entirely clear which online communities - subscribe to an email newsletter, redeem a promotion, maybe even simply buy a product. It now says that all of these disputes are resolved through binding arbitration. You cannot sue. You cannot join a class action suit.

YOUNG: They seem to be saying, if you've taken one of our benefits, then you can't sue us. But if you go to the General Mills Web page and you look at the cover story - the cover page, rather, for the legal terms, it seems to be implying - and I'll read the sentence: This includes disputes related to the purchase or use of any General Mills product or service. In other words, they're saying it's not just the premiums. It's if you outright buy a product. Are they saying that if you get a box of cereal and it has a screw in it and you break your tooth, you can't sue?

THOMPSON: You can't sue. No. You can't have a class action lawsuit. Again, it goes to binding arbitration. I pulled out that exact same sentence. I was going to read it as well. It's really astonishing to require that all disputes related to the purchase or use of any product has to be resolved through binding arbitration.

So what is binding arbitration? That means that disputes are resolved outside of court. And outside of court means the parties give up their right to sue, to participate in a class action, or to appeal the arbitration decision. So, essentially, bottom line, it means that the balance of power is tipped overwhelmingly toward the corporation - in this case, General Mills.

YOUNG: Yeah. But this is just General Mills saying this. So does that hold up? Will that hold up in court, that they declare that you can't sue them even if it's - sounds like even if their product is defective?

THOMPSON: It's a remarkable claim. It's not entirely clear whether it will hold up in court. On the one hand, a recent Supreme Court decision in 2011 gives companies significantly more latitude to do just this - to prohibit class action arbitration with these new legal terms. But legal experts say that General Mills is going to have to find some way to prove that customers knew about this new policy in order to enforce it. And it's not entirely clear that moms and dads across the country are checking out generalmills.com before buying their kid Cocoa Puffs or Cheerios.

And so there are legal experts that were interviewed by the New York Times when they broke the story this morning, that said that this is the first case they've seen of a food company of General Mills' scale moving in this direction. It's possible that others will follow if it holds up in court. But it's also possible that this new legal rule is simply too sweeping and that it will not hold up in court.

YOUNG: Oh, no, Derek. You and I might have to go to court because they may claim that we told people, and so they should know.

THOMPSON: I know.

YOUNG: We should say you can opt out of this policy after buying a product if you write an email to General Mills, saying you want out. But that doesn't cover you for the time period before you opted out. Boy. Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic. Thanks as always, Derek.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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