General Mills' CerealsIf you use General Mills’ coupons, you must read this post. In the past week, it has made sweeping changes to its legal terms, only to reverse those terms on April 21, 2014. In this post, we will break down exactly what those changes were, how they would have affected you, what their reversion to its original legal terms means to you and, what you can do to protect yourselves from legal terms such as the ones General Mills implemented.

First: What did General Mills do?

Quick background: Just in case you do not recognize General Mills; it makes a large variety of brands available at most grocery stores: Betty Crocker, Bisquick, Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Hamburger Helper, and more. (Here’s a complete list). In addition to filling the aisles with these brands, General Mills provides a large number of coupons via its website, social media platforms and email list. These coupons allow savvy shoppers to stretch their budgets a little further; something we all can appreciate.

In addition to coupons, General Mills also provides contests, sweepstakes, promotional offers, etc. All of these items, the consumer is lead to believe are for getting customers to try new products, building brand loyalty or giving back to the General Mills’ community. For the most part, there was no reason to suspect General Mills had any ulterior motives other than what was just previously stated.

However, then, General Mills added an arbitration clause to its “Legal terms,” that could have potentially cost consumers substantially more than getting 50% off a box of cereal:

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“In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our websites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest, redeeming a promotional offer, or otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering, you are agreeing to these terms.” What terms? You are giving up the right to enter a class action law suit and you agreeing to binding arbitration.

Second: How would this arbitration clause have affected the consumer?

No LawsuitsIn plain English, here is what the arbitration clause would have meant. If General Mills sold faulty products that hurt you, you could not have sued them. It does not mean you would have no legal recourse. You would have been able to arbitrate with General Mills, however, historically; arbitration favors large companies over individual consumers. There are a number of theories as to why, but a leading reason is that an arbitrator, not a jury, makes the final decision. Hypothetically, a jury of one’s peers tends to sympathize more with someone poisoned by Toaster’s Strudel than an arbitrator does.

Usually, an arbitration clause includes preventing the right to enter a class action lawsuit, but even if all you gave up was the right to enter a class action lawsuit, it could have devastating consequences. The reason class action lawsuits have such power is because they are used to take on big companies. Big companies have deep pockets, lots of lawyers and could delay a single claim for years (if not, longer). Class action lawsuits allow victims of corporate abuse to band together, create their own army of attorneys and “make themselves whole” in a much faster timeline (usually). If you give that right up, you could face an incredibly difficult legal battle.

Third: What does General Mills’ reversion to its original legal terms mean?

CouponsPrimarily, you can go back to using its coupons, entering its contests and receiving its promotional items without fear of giving up any of your rights. Here are its updated legal terms. However, General Mills’ reversion illustrates something much greater than this particular issue. Legal terms like these are not unique to this company. They have been around for a lot longer than people realize. Carnival Cruise Lines, eBay, At&T and many more companies have similar arbitration clauses, but General Mills definitely stepped over the line.

It is unlikely that you would be bound by arbitration clauses just for receiving an email and these clauses must be made very clear in the legal terms. General Mills failed to do this. The media caught wind of it. Social Media caught wind of it. And, now, they have changed it. This is fantastic news, but it does not mean the next time we will all be so lucky.

Fourth: What can you do to protect yourself from similar legal terms?

Read the legal terms! Okay, I know that is not realistic, but that would be your best option to avoid any problems. However, I do have one trick I like to use that Cntrl Fworks pretty well. Use your browser’s “find field” (press ctrl+f) to look for words like “arbitration, suit, class-action, etc” and if you don’t find them, then there is a good chance, the legal terms you are looking at do not have an arbitration clause. This practice takes about 30 seconds and is far less painful than reading all that legalese.

If you find that the product or service you are buying has an arbitration clause you do not like; do not buy it. Or, if you simply must have it and it must be from that company, you may be able to find an outside insurance provider to help you. In the past decade, insurance carriers have branched out into everything from cell phones to vacations, so (depending on your level of risk aversion) this could be an avenue for you to consider.

Hopefully, General Mills (or any other company) will not try to slip anymore unfriendly clauses into its legal terms, but if they do, we will be her to inform you of the changes, how they affect you and what you can do to stay protected.