McDonald's Corp. began a high-powered offensive in a centuries-old courtroom Tuesday, using bespectacled lawyers in wigs and a mountain of paper to wage a costly libel battle against two London environmentalists.
The world's biggest hamburger chain likely will be in court for months trying to prove it was defamed by the pair, who showed up in shirt sleeves, didn't hire lawyers to defend themselves and apparently have little to lose.
"It's going to cost a lot, but our reputation is worth it," McDonald's spokeswoman Eddie Bensilum said outside the High Court.
The Oak Brook-based company says a coordinated campaign of leaflets and demonstrations has left many people with the erroneous impression that it destroys rainforests, promotes unhealthy food and exploits women and members of ethnic minorities to obtain cheap labor.
These allegations are false and defamatory, McDonald's lawyer Richard Rampton told Justice Roger Bell in an opening argument.
The McDonald's lawsuit against Dave Morris, 39, and Helen Steel, 28, both unemployed and on welfare, is expected to run through mid-December.
McDonald's wants a court ruling that says the environmentalists have been wrong in their criticisms. The company also wants the court to order the defendants to quit distributing pamphlets that make statements about McDonald's practices on employment, advertising, nutrition and the environment.
The pamphlets, titled "What's wrong with McDonald's -Everything they don't want you to know," feature a picture of a cigar-chomping tycoon with dollar signs in his eyes, trying to cover his face with a smiling Ronald McDonald mask.
Rampton said Morris and Steel distributed the materials-peppered with words such as "McDollars," "McGreedy" and "McCancer"-as part of an organized effort to "smash a multinational that epitomizes capitalism."
McDonald's plans to call up to 85 witnesses, ranging from top corporate executives to french-fry makers, outside experts and suppliers of beef, pork and chicken, to dispute every charge.
Morris and Steel say they plan a similar number of witnesses that will back up the allegations. The two are to present their opening arguments Wednesday.
Morris and Steel have filed a countersuit accusing McDonald's of defamation.
Rampton read from the anti-McDonald's pamphlet, pausing frequently to point out passages that he said were false.
For example, the pamphlets refer to "fake food," saying the lettuce at McDonald's "might as well be a bit of plastic."
"Wholly false," Rampton said.
In appealing to children, McDonald's is pushing unhealthy food high in fat and salt that can cause a variety of illnesses, the pamphlets say.
Rampton said everything McDonald's sells can be part of a healthy diet.