Clicking 'Like' can cancel your right to sue a company

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order

General Mills logoWant to save 50 cents on your cereal?

Better watch out. Downloading that coupon or even clicking "Like" on the cereal maker's Facebook page could cost you the right to sue the company, given the direction US companies are taking.

How did that come about?

As the New York Times reports, the US Fortune 500 food company General Mills is perhaps the first company to impose a new legal stricture, what's known as "forced arbitration", on consumers.

Specifically, General Mills quietly amended its website language recently to alert consumers that they give up their right to sue the company if they interact with it online in just about any way, the NYT reports.

At the heart of this change is that General Mills did, in fact, face a lawsuit.

The company makes the breakfast cereals Cheerios, Trix, Wheaties and Chex, as well as brands of baking mixes such as Bisquick and Betty Crocker.

It also takes things like pears and turns them into food-like things.

That includes, to borrow from Huffington Post's descriptions, pliable, waxy sheets and explosive juice-filled pellets, in neon colors, sweetened by substances cooked up in a lab and most certainly not found in nature.

On 26 March 2014, a California judge refused to dismiss a case brought by two mothers who contended that such products are not, as General Mills markets them, "natural", given that they contain processed and genetically engineered ingredients.

Soon after the judge's decision, on 2 April, General Mills changed its terms.

This is what the company wrote in a bar across the top of its home page:

We've updated our Privacy Policy. Please note we also have new Legal Terms which require all disputes related to the purchase or use of any General Mills product or service to be resolved through binding arbitration.

The new privacy policy links to the new legal terms, which outline the binding arbitration that has now replaced the right to file suit, including class action suits.

You can't sue the company, the legal terms state, if you've done any of the following:

  • Used a General Mills website to receive or access benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings
  • Joined General Mills sites as a member
  • Joined the company's online community
  • Subscribed to the company's email newsletters
  • Downloaded or printed a digital coupon
  • Entered a sweepstakes or contest
  • Redeemed a promotional offer
  • Otherwise participated in any other of the company's offerings

All those things are, of course, voluntary, the legal terms continue, but "if you choose to do any of these things, then you agree to be bound by this Agreement."

Julia Duncan, director of federal programs and an arbitration expert at the American Association for Justice, a trade group representing plaintiff trial lawyers, told the NYT that this is the first case she's seen like this, that more are sure to follow, and that consumers subjected to these terms could face a future of not being able to sue a company when its products do harm, as food most certainly has the power to do:

It's essentially trying to protect the company from all accountability, even when it lies, or say, an employee deliberately adds broken glass to a product.

Other companies have instituted similar contractual limitations in offline contracts.

Like button. Image courtesy of ShutterstockAs Mother Jones has reported, car companies have snuck "you forfeit the right to sue us" language into contracts, forced arbitration is standard in everything from employment contracts to cell phone agreements to software licenses, and one hamburger joint even stuck a sign on its door that informed patrons that they gave up their rights to sue just by stepping over the threshold.

But this case of the makers of Fruit Gushers applying such a legal framework to consumers who so much as Like the company's page may be a first.

How realistic is it to think that a court would choose to enforce the new policy if all a consumer did was visit a General Mills website?

Unlikely, but "We really don't know," Scott L. Nelson, a lawyer at Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group, told the NYT.

But, he predicted, we can expect subpoenas for computer hard drives in the future if related cases wind up in court.

Let's hope that courts see how unacceptably broad these legal terms are.

Companies can do a load of harm. People should have the right to hold them legally accountable for such actions - whether it's lying in marketing or something more severe, like endangering people's health.

If you've heard of other companies throwing this type of constricting net over consumers in their legal terms, please share what you've encountered in the comments section below.

Image of like button courtesy of Shutterstock.

,

You might like

27 Responses to Clicking 'Like' can cancel your right to sue a company

  1. Suzanne (UK) · 154 days ago

    or just boycott the products?

  2. stephen ward · 154 days ago

    Disagree and I firmly believe the corporation is within its rights to protect itself from frivolous lawsuits. By reading this comment you agree that you forfeit all rights to sue.

    • rakso75 · 153 days ago

      If a lawsuit is frivolous or not, shouldn't that be decided by a judge?

    • Mr G. · 153 days ago

      And what about when it come to non frivolous lawsuits.....?

    • Christophe Rigaud · 153 days ago

      Hi Stephen,

      Would you think the same if your kids ended up at the ER because they ate tainted food from one of those companies ? I think such dispute should be decided by a judge.

    • Mang · 149 days ago

      27 people don't understand sarcasm ;)

      • rakso75 · 148 days ago

        Maybe, maybe... but if 2 (or maybe 7 at the time of writing this post) people "understand" sarcasm and 27 do not, was it really sarcasm??

  3. I wonder how this would interface with the TPP. Any suggestions?

  4. confused_confucious · 153 days ago

    Hang on... doesn't this fall foul that Terms & Conditions and even Contracts cannot supersede law? In that I can't write a contract saying I can kill you and then I won't get done for murder (as an extreme example, but it highlights the point) So if GM breaks the law, your right to take action against them remains irrespective of what 'agreements' they say you signed up to implicitly?

    • Pretty much what I thought of.
      If it is indeed legal to make such contracts/ToS that supersede the law, then America has some bigger issues it needs to solve first.

    • Heatshiver · 153 days ago

      My thoughts exactly. Just because people write in their own policies doesn't make them legally valid.

    • Jim · 153 days ago

      I THINK you are correct, but it could depend on federal and/or state laws. And, with some of the crazy things judges allow, I'm not sure we should count on them doing the right thing. Companies have legions of legal goons cooking this stuff up. Are they all wrong?

    • Richard · 143 days ago

      Can't deny my legal rights through a contract.

      But I don't have a legal right to sue, just to have disputes resolved. So if the resolution is binding arbitration, then that's fine, so long as the arbiter enforces my legal rights in court.

      Same as any other binding arbitration, it's like a venue-choice clause in a contract; I still get the same rights, just only from the arbiter (of the company's choosing and paid by him) instead of from a judge in court.

      As you might spot, the reality may not match the theory.

  5. Chris · 153 days ago

    Do I give up my right to sue Sophos by commenting here?

  6. With these kind of policies being allowed, is there even any point in having a law?

    And thinking about, to even read GM's policy, your treading on thin ice because it's on their website, it's just a lose lose situation.

  7. Reg Vernon, England · 153 days ago

    In the United Kingdom, this type of 'catch all' attempt to evade legal responsibility for its actions would be covered by Unfair Contract Terms legislation. I cant think of anything more unfair than trying to minimise legal obligations by the use of small print contract terms.
    However, in the area of Employment legislation, the UK has recently made compulsory arbitration a necessary stage in the resolution of employment disputes in an attempt to reduce recourse by grieved employees to Employment Tribunals.
    Arbitration has the potential to reduce the size of compensatory payments but should not prevent the ability to choose to go to courts to settle disputes.

    • Hx · 150 days ago

      I have to imagine there is other recourse beyond civil suits. In Australia for instance you would raise the issue with Consumer Affairs and (hopefully) the government would take them to task over it. There is no way possible that a companies terms and conditions can prevent you from doing that.

  8. Philip Le Riche · 153 days ago

    Isn't this just a natural reaction to an increasingly litigious environment? This idea could have legs!

    P.S. by reading this comment, you agree to give up any right to sue me for libel. About anything.

  9. goat · 153 days ago

    Learn your lesson, don't communicate with the companies you like, you may sue them one day! I guess in their perfect world, everyone should not use their websites or services, because they should be in constant fear of losing a lawsuit if something were to go sour!

  10. Sam · 153 days ago

    In the UK we have a law called (approx) Unfair Contract Terms which I believe can be used to quash this type of thing.

  11. John LF · 153 days ago

    I would be interested to see what constitutes them breaking the terms and conditions of that agreement.

  12. TonyG · 153 days ago

    This probably won't hold any force in the UK, as we have laws regarding unfair terms and conditions. Losing the right to take any action simply because you have access their web site is likely to be considered unfair terms and conditions especially as the only way of contacting many companies or finding the right contact point is, surprise, surprise, through their web site.

    This law is specifically to stop large companies abusing their customers by writing such legal terms.

    It reminds me of the stupidity of at least one company at the start of the Internet era around 1995 - you had to agree to their legal agreement to enter their web site. Surprisingly I visited their web site recently and you still have to tick some form of legal acceptance.

  13. cakmn · 152 days ago

    Perhaps it's time for everyone to start preemptively suing General Mills before making any contact or doing any business with them. The suit would be to protect one's self and one's rights in case of any possible future issues with General Mills or any General Mills products. Likewise for all other large corporations. It's clear that our "corporate persons" are getting much too carried away in their bids for profits and they need to be put in their places

    On the other hand, Daniel Fisher at Forbes has a different apologetic take on this:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/danielfisher/2014/04/18/general-mills-consumers-give-up-rights-to-what-exactly/

    So, who really does know what's going on? With so many lawyers involved, probably nobody really knows anymore. And that's just what the lawyers like.

  14. saxonrau · 150 days ago

    Append to your sign-up details, (possibly as a middle name) the following or some version thereof. If necessary, email the company and request a delivery receipt for the email.
    "By retaining my details on your website or in any marketing or other database which you use or are responsible for, you agree that I retain all legal rights to pursue action against you in connection with contractual breaches in any manner that I see fit, either through courts or by arbitration and that you shall not gainsay that right through the use of any terms of use on any web site that you control or upon which you are responsible for content. You assent to these terms by retention of my personal data including any subsequent use of it, except the sole action of producing legally binding proof that it has been deleted from any active or archived databases as described above and providing legally binding proof that you are no longer using said data or in a position to subsequently do so."

  15. Lisa Vaas · 149 days ago

    Upate: General Mills reversed its new policy. Was surprised, *blink!* *blink!* that people interpreted the new legal terms as meaning we couldn't sue the company if we breathed in any of its cyber pheromones. http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-fi-mo-general-mills-legal-policy-reversal-20140421,0,1683035.story#axzz2zcOyoSQ2

  16. Laura · 147 days ago

    This would be an interesting case. I do not think something as a Facebook 'like' can protect a firm from beïng sued. But you never know what the future will bring.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.