LONDON (AP) -- McDonald's Corp. may be on the verge of victory in the
longest trial ever heard by an English court -- but at what a cost.
After three years, much adverse publicity and a legal bill worth millions of Big Macs, the global hamburger giant is about to get a verdict in its libel case against two obscure vegetarian activists, Dave Morris and Helen Steel.
Legal experts predict a judgment largely in favor of McDonald's, which accuses Morris, an unemployed former postman, and Steel, a part-time bar worker, of defaming it with pamphlets that attack the company's business practices.
But any victory by McDonald's could ring hollow. The marathon case dubbed "McLibel" has turned Morris, 43, and Steel, 31, into fringe heroes of the political left, standing up against what they call the oppressive evils of multinational capitalism.
Morris and Steel have been showered by international attention -- through newspapers, a book, a British television miniseries and an Internet web site -- that they couldn't have dreamed of had McDonald's left them alone.
"We believe we've already won, because McDonald's brought this case to silence their critics and it's had the opposite effect," Morris said.
If McDonald's should somehow lose, its embarrassment would be enormous.
At issue is an old pamphlet, distributed by campaigners for years outside British McDonald's outlets, entitled "What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know."
The pamphlet shows a Ronald McDonald mask covering the face of a grubby capitalist. It accuses McDonald's of promoting an unhealthy diet full of fat and too much salt, treating workers and animals poorly, using beef from former rainforest lands and luring children into its stores with a seductive ad campaign.
All false and defamatory, McDonald's claimed. It says it has spent so much money -- the company won't confirm reports that the case cost it $16 million -- and time because its reputation is worth it.
McDonald's says it is confident winning when the judge, Justice Roger Bell, delivers his verdict by the end of this week.
McDonald's, with revenues that came to $10.7 billion last year, can certainly afford the legal tab. But many observers question the company's wisdom.
"It was, as it turned out, very crazy for them to bring the action," said Eric Barendt, a professor of media law at University College in London.
"They have spent lots of money that they can't recover," Barendt said. "They have had a lot of bad publicity and they appear oppressive."
Any victory by McDonald's will be tainted by public perceptions that the trial was a mismatch.
McDonald's hired prominent London libel lawyer Richard Rampton to take on the two defendants who showed up in shirt sleeves, often appearing awkward and bewildered by trial procedures as they represented themselves throughout a record 313 days in court.
McLibel set several milestones for legal longevity in England, duly taking a place in The Guinness Book of Records. When the case was handed to the judge late last year, it had become the longest English trial ever, outdoing the 291-day case of a Londoner caught impersonating a nobleman during the 1870s.
McDonald's would find it hard if not impossible to fight such a libel case in the United States, where plaintiffs who are public figures face the difficult task of proving in court that they have been falsely and maliciously defamed. In Britain, laws are much more favorable to those bringing libel cases, because defendants are forced to prove that what they said was true.
Critics say the rich and powerful can easily manipulate such a system. The late publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell is frequently cited as an example of a corrupt figure who used threats of lawsuits to silence his foes.
Despite its legal advantages, McDonald's may have underestimated the consequences of picking a fight with people who had nothing to lose.
When it brought the case, McDonald's apparently thought that Morris and Steel would cave in along with three other activists the company sued.
Morris and Steel said the leaflets are true, so they decided to fight. They slugged it out through 28 pretrial hearings before the trial finally began on June 28, 1994.
The defense called disgruntled former McDonald's workers, farmers and nutritionists, and says it extracted embarrassing confessions from McDonald's executives, some of whom were grilled for more than two weeks on the witness stand.
The proceedings generated much publicity, including one report that a female private eye hired by McDonald's to infiltrate the left-wing activists ended up having an affair with one of the campaigners to gain his confidence.
McDonald's tried to get out, flying over corporate directors from Chicago to seek a settlement. Morris and Steel dug in, eventually calling 60 witnesses, compared with 70 called by McDonald's.
The vegetarians say they proved every point, but even if the pamphlet is found to be libelous, it is now available worldwide on an Internet site called "McSpotlight" set up by their supporters.
The environmental campaigners say they handed out another 2 million copies during the McLibel trial and they are printing thousands more to be distributed as they picket McDonald's stores across Britain on the Saturday after the verdict.