Critics will appeal;
judge slams some of firm's practices
In a case that made legal history, a British judge on Thursday upheld most of the claims by the McDonald's
hamburger empire that it had been libeled by two London political activists. But he condemned some of the corporation's business
The ruling by Judge Rodger Bell, after the longest trial in English history, was an overwhelming legal victory for McDonald's, which was awarded $98,500 in damages against Dave Morris, 43, and Helen Steel, 31. McDonald's has said it will not attempt to collect from the pair, who claim their joint incomes total only $12,315 per year.
Bell threw out a countersuit for libel that Morris and Steel brought against Oak Brook-based McDonald's British affiliate for having distributed leaflets accusing them of spreading lies. He ruled that McDonald's failed to show they deliberately lied, but said the corporation was entitled to try to refute the attack made upon it.
Despite the rulings, Morris and Steel claimed victory in that they had gained worldwide publicity for their allegations and had mobilized support from "millions'' of people. They promised to appeal, and to challenge Britain's libel laws -- much stricter than those in the U.S. -- before the European Court for Human Rights.
They also promised that 400,000 leaflets repeating their allegations against McDonald's would be passed out on Saturday outside McDonald's restaurants in Britain. "The public are the jury in this case,'' Morris said. The trial was heard without a jury.
The McLibel trial, as it has become known, began in 1994 and spanned 313 hearings. Bell delivered his verdict in a three-volume document, but summarized it in a 45-page paper that took him one hour and 43 minutes to read.
He found in favor of McDonald's on most major points, rejecting allegations that the corporation contributed to starvation in the Third World, destroyed rain forests, lied about its use of recycled paper, produced food that contributes to cancer and heart disease, and knowingly sold food that carried a risk of food poisoning.
But the judge partially upheld allegations that McDonald's is guilty of cruelty to animals in the way they are reared and slaughtered, that its British affiliate underpays employees and that McDonald's advertising is sometimes misleading and is designed to pressure children to pester their parents to take them to McDonald's.
McDonald's brought the suit against Morris, a former postal worker who lives on welfare, and Steel, a part-time bartender, after they distributed leaflets containing all of these allegations.
The defendants denied they were involved in publication of the leaflets, which bore the imprint of London Greenpeace, but Bell said he was satisfied they did play a role in the publication.
At a boisterous news conference afterward, marked by cheering and shouting from their supporters, Steel and Morris promised to press on with their fight against McDonald's.
Although lacking legal training, they acted as their own attorneys in the case.
"We won on major points,'' Steel said. "As far as we are concerned, the loss would have occurred if we hadn't brought this case.''
Morris said: "We think this is a victory because McDonald's brought the case to silence criticism. The leaflets are circulating in ever-greater numbers. . . . No force, no court on this planet can stop me or millions of others from expressing our opinions.''
Paul Preston, chairman and chief executive of McDonald's Restaurants Ltd. in Britain, said the corporation was "broadly satisfied'' with the verdict.
"The judgment confirms what we have always known, that the allegations are untrue,'' he said, ignoring the fact the judge found some of them to be true.
"We brought this case to protect a reputation trusted by millions of customers every day,'' he said. "This judgment represents a thorough audit of our business.''
Even though the London-based McDonald's chain is a wholly owned subsidiary of America's McDonald's Corp., Oak Brook-based executives did not want to put their two cents worth into commenting on the case.
The company would only refer to the London company's chairman's comments on Thursday.
"This is something that was initiated by McDonald's U.K., and carried through by McDonald's U.K.,'' the spokesman said. "They are issues that pertain to the U.K.''
In their defense, Steel and Morris argued that McDonald's had contributed to starvation in the Third World by buying up land for cattle ranching and driving small farmers off the land. The judge said this was untrue.
As to their claim that rain forests had been destroyed to make way for cattle ranches, Bell ruled against the defendants on the technical ground that they had referred to rain forests rather than tropical forests. He said there was no evidence rain forests had been affected.
On the issue of recycled paper, Bell said McDonald's publicity material in 1990 was misleading in claiming some packaging in England was being recycled when it was not. But he said "this deception'' did not support claims McDonald's had lied about recycling.
Morris and Steel said McDonald's food products could put consumers at risk of heart disease or cancer of the bowel or breast.
Bell said McDonald's products are high in fat and salt, but said the allegations might be true only for those who eat several times a week at McDonald's over a period of many years.
On the advertising issue, Bell said: "McDonald's advertising and marketing is in large part directed at children with a view to them pressuring or pestering their parents to take them to McDonald's.''
But he rejected a contention that McDonald's uses publicity gimmicks to cover up the true quality of its food.
On the issue of food poisoning, Bell said that however good hygiene systems are, there will always be human errors that could cause poisoning. He said the risk at McDonald's was minimal.
The defendants had cited two cases of E-coli poisoning at McDonald's restaurants in the U.S. and Britain.
Morris and Steel said laying hens, broiler chickens and sows that produce pigs for McDonald's products are denied access to open air or sunshine and denied freedom of movement.
The judge ruled that lack of access to open air or sunshine was not cruel, but restrictions on movement were.
He also found some chickens are still fully conscious when they have their throats cut. "This is a cruel practice for which the plaintiffs are culpably responsible,'' he said.
On employment practices, Bell accepted that McDonald's is anti-union, but rejected an allegation that it has a policy of firing employees who have union sympathies.
He also found that McDonald's in Britain pays low wages that help to depress wages throughout the catering trade.
In quiet periods, he said, McDonald's employees are sometimes "invited'' to go home early and are not paid for the balance of their shift. "I cannot say that it happens often, but it should not happen at all,'' he commented.
But he rejected allegations that McDonald's exploits disadvantaged groups, women and blacks especially, in its employment practices.
Tribune reporter Jim Kirk contributed to this story.