In a first in the history of “forced arbitration,” food giant General Mills has added legal language to its coupons stating that any recipient of a “benefit” from the company (including coupons valued as low as fifty cents off a General Mills product) automatically waive their right to sue, and must engage in binding arbitration going forward – even over issues that do not directly stem from the product or coupon.
The new arbitration language appears to be in reaction to the growing number of lawsuits against General Mills and other food companies, most commonly over ?deceptive’ packaging practices, including labeling products as being all natural or implying they contain ingredients they don’t actually contain. In 2012, for example, General Mills settled a lawsuit over the label on its Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups, which do not, in fact, contain any strawberries, and agreed to remove the word from future packaging. In March 2014, a California judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought against General Mills over the use of the word “natural” on its Nature Valley products despite the fact that they contain processed ingredients and genetically engineered ingredients. General Mills announced the new arbitration language shortly after this ruling.
How the courts will interpret this broad language remains to be seen. On the extreme end, a court could decide that simply by visiting the General Mills website, consumers were agreeing to their arbitration terms. However, this is considered unlikely. The courts will work through how the new policies apply or don’t apply over the coming years, and General Mills hopes it at least stems the tide of litigation against it.