McDonald's prevails in long-running libel case

CNN (Online) ; 19th June 1997

LONDON (CNN) -- A British judge ruled Thursday that two vegetarian activists libeled hamburger giant McDonald's Corp. in pamphlets portraying the company as a corporation that abuses animals, workers and the environment.

Justice Roger Bell awarded damages of 57,500 pounds, or $94,000, to both U.S.-based McDonald's Corp. and its British subsidiary.

But in issuing his decision in the longest trial in English history, Bell said some of the criticisms of the fast-food chain were correct.

"The majority of the defamatory statements I found to be untrue. Others were true," Bell said in his nearly two-hour summation of a three-volume verdict.

McDonald's spent millions and received much criticism in the case, which some legal experts say resulted in a hollow victory. The case began in 1990. The trial started almost three years ago and included 313 days of testimony from 180 witnesses.

Tale of two sides

Unemployed ex-postman Dave Morris and part-time bar worker Helen Steel in pamphlets called McDonald's a multinational corporate menace that promotes an unhealthy diet and abuses the environment, workers and animals.

McDonald's called the attacks false and defamatory and dragged Morris, 43, and Steel, 31, into a trial that set several legal longevity records along the way.

The courtroom was packed Thursday with McDonald's executives in their suits and lawyers in their wigs on one side, and the defendants and their supporters casually dressed in shirtsleeves and anti-McDonald's T-shirts on the other side.

Steel and Morris were greeted with cheers and war whoops by dozens of supporters as they left the court. They then marched down the street behind a large anti-McDonald's banner surrounded by television journalists and by activists who chanted "No justice! Just us!"

McDonald's British president Paul Preston said, "We're satisfied with the judgment. We're concerned about the length of time it took." He did not immediately say whether the company would try to collect.

Because the activists are penniless it will be up to McDonald's to decide if they will pursue the damages. The burger chain has said it is not seeking to destroy the activists, just to stop them spreading the allegations.

McDonald's defamed

The judge found that the defendants libeled McDonald's in most but not all of the statements in the anti-McDonald's pamphlets they handed out.

Bell said McDonald's was defamed when the defendants accused it of destroying rain forests and moving small farmers off their land in Third World countries to make way for massive cattle farming.

The judge also said the defendants defamed McDonald's by calling its food unhealthy and saying that the company lied about how much recycled packaging it uses.

Cruel treatment of animals

But the judge said some key points of the anti-McDonald's pamphlet were true.

The judge found that McDonald's was "culpable" in cruel treatment of some animals, including laying hens kept in small cages their entire lives, and other chickens that are conscious as their throats are cut.

The judge also agreed that McDonald's runs advertisements that encourage children to pester their parents into going to the fast-food outlets.

The judge agreed with the defendants contention that McDonald's restaurants in Britain pay low wages and sometimes treat young impressionable workers unfairly by sending them home early when business is slow, which lowers their pay.

But the judge did not find the overall working conditions at McDonald's are bad. He said that although McDonald's managers don't like unions, it was unfair for the activists to claim that the company had an anti-union policy.

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