David vs. Big Mac in British Case

Chicago Tribune, April 9, 1995

In an oak-paneled London courtroom, two unemployed environmental activists are pitched against fast-food giant McDonald's in what promises to become the longest and most expensive libel case in British legal history.

The world's biggest restaurant chain, with annual sales of $38 billion, is suing the two for allegedly printing lies about the company in a 1984 pamphlet.

Without lawyers or legal training and funded only by donations, Helen Steel, 29, and 41-year-old Dave Morris are defending allegations they made in the leaflet that McDonald's promotes an unhealthy diet, damages the environment and exploits workers and children.

The former gardener and ex-postal worker are conducting their own defense against top British libel lawyer Richard Rampton in a trial deemed too complex for a jury to decide.

The defendants have had to master court procedures, arcane British legal jargon, a welter of scientific and technical information as well as some 30,000 pages of trial documents.

"It really is a David and Goliath case," said a British libel expert.

"I think McDonald's has got a lot of very high-powered evidence. They have brought over senior management from America. They have got a lot of scientific evidence, environmental evidence. . . . The scope of the thing is absolutely vast."

Some of Britain's legal profession have found it simply baffling.

"They (McDonald's) are spending millions . . . to crush a very small discordant voice against them," said a British lawyer.

"At the end of the day the publicity generated by taking the action is more than it probably would have been if they had done nothing at all."

The trial, dubbed the McLibel case, started last summer and is not expected to finish until the end of this year.

McLibel is estimated to be costing McDonald's more than $8,000 a day in legal expenses. It could also cost British taxpayers some $4 million.

McDonald's says it is in court reluctantly and that it had no choice but to fight because the leaflet was distributed extensively and not just in Britain.

"We are seeking a conclusive judgement which will then enable us to seek an injunction to prevent the further distribution of this literature," said Mike Love, head of communications for McDonald's U.K.

"The allegations are very serious. They affect every aspect of our business and we take those sufficiently seriously to ensure that our reputation is guarded and that our customers are not misled into believing that the allegations are true," said Love.

The leaflet entitled "What's Wrong With McDonald's" was produced by London Greenpeace, a small, independent group of activists. Three of the five members responsible for it have apologized to the burger giant, but Steel and Morris vowed to fight.

Before Judge Roger Bell delivers his verdict, which is not expected until early next year, he will hear up to 180 witnesses.

Morris and Steel, dressed in sweaters and jeans, stand in glaring contrast to Bell and Rampton in their flowing black robes and white powdered wigs.

But the defendants have held their own since the trial started last summer, questioning expert witnesses on topics ranging from food packaging and nutrition to claims of deceptive advertising and the destruction of rain forests.

"They didn't believe that we would be able to fight the case and that we would be advised that the best thing is just to back down and forget it," said Morris. "Nobody believed it would take this long but we're taking the issues very seriously."

Morris and Steel have already devoted the better part of three years to their court battle. A McLibel Support Campaign has helped with expenses and organizational work and volunteer lawyers have offered advice but it is still a far cry from the resources of their opponent.

"We're defending freedom of speech," said Morris, a single parent with a 5-year-old child.

If McDonald's wins, it's doubtful that it will collect anything in damages. The best it could hope for is an authoritative statement from the judge that what has been said about them is untrue.

McDonald's says that is all it wants. "We're not seeking damages, we're not seeking costs. Our only motive was to see the truth was proved," said Love.

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