An article this week in The New York Times highlights the extraordinary measures some companies will take to avoid responsibility for their own actions. According to the newspaper, “General Mills, the maker of cereals like Cheerios and Chex as well as brands like Bisquick and Betty Crocker, has quietly added language to its website” that strips consumers of their right to sue the company for actions as simple as downloading a coupon or ‘liking’ the company or its products on Facebook.
Even more extraordinary, the paper reports: “In language added on Tuesday after The New York Times contacted it about the changes, General Mills seemed to go even further, suggesting that buying its products would bind consumers to those terms.”
The website language requires disputes with the company to be settled through arbitration rather than in the courts. Arbitration clauses have been common in the financial industry for decades but have steadily crept into other areas of American life in recent years. Large companies prefer arbitration because, unlike a trial, it is not open to the public and because the process, while supposedly fair, tends to favor deep-pocketed businesses. Since a 2011 Supreme Court ruling upholding the use of arbitration clauses in cellphone contracts this legal device has spread rabidly through the corporate world.
The case against this move was well stated by Julia Duncan of the American Association for Justice, who told the Times: “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.” In other words, it is a clause designed to protect the makers of unsafe products from responsibility for their own actions. The newspaper notes that General Mills “declined to make anyone available for an interview about the changes.” This is unfortunate. The Seventh Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees everyone a trial by jury, this is one of the most basic rights of our democracy. The ability of one citizen to take a multi-billion dollar corporation to task before a jury of his or her peers is essential to our way of life. Why General Mills believes that its corporate interests trump that right is harder to fathom.
Regular readers will know that as an Oregon attorney one of my special concerns has long been helping consumers protect their rights, and ensuring that our courts serve their intended function. Justice is only served when ordinary Americans can get a fair hearing when they believe a large, rich corporation has wronged them. We all know that legal fine print is often designed to confuse ordinary readers, and no reasonable person would assume that he or she had given up a wide swathe of rights simply by ‘liking’ a brand on Facebook. The Times is to be commended for this week’s article. It is only through media exposure, and legal challenges, that this sort of corporate overreach can be challenged.
New York Times: When ‘Liking’ a Brand Online Voids the Right to Sue