' McLibel' case sets record for longest action

The Independent: Monday, December 11, 1995

David and Goliath: Environmentalists milk publicity as burger chain spends 2m on a hearing that could last until summer.

The McDonald's libel trial becomes the longest civil case in British history today after nearly 18 months of arguments about sewage on restaurant floors, workers' rights, and accusations that the burger chain is sexist, racist and homophobic.

Adrian Brett, witness number 85, will take the stand in the High Court in London at 10.30am and give evidence about the burger chain's Colchester store. His allegations will be the latest in a long line that have been disseminated around the world.

Initially expected to run for four months, the David and Goliath action is expected to have Mr Justice Bell in his seat at Court 35 of the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand until the summer. The case was deemed too complicated for a jury.

McDonald's is suing two environmentalists from north London to stop the stream of allegations against the burger chain. Helen Steel, 30, and Dave Morris, 41, stand accused of distributing a leaflet which claims the company sells food linked to heart disease and cancer, cuts down rainforests, and abuses its workforce. It also stands accused of corruptingchildren with its advertising.

The allegations were contained in a leaflet called What's wrong with McDonald's?

The flyer had a cult following among green activists in the 1980s. Then, just as its circulation was beginning to fall, McDonald's decided to begin court proceedings against five people from London Greenpeace it believed was responsible for producing and distributing it.

Three of the group apologised to the $ 26bn corporation and promised not to repeat the allegations. Helen Steel and Dave Morris did not. McDonald's sued for libel and the pair decided to fight.

Eighteen months after the start of the trial the " McLibel Two" are claiming victory. "We've already won because we've not been silenced," said Ms Steel. "More than 1.5 million leaflets have been handed out since the start of the trial and thousands of campaigners have pledged to carry on handing them out whatever the verdict. They've just given us a worldwide platform to air our criticisms."

McDonald's claims it was forced into taking legal action because they feared that if they did not people would assume the allegations were true. There have been several attempts to settle but the battle goes on and is expected to last another eight months.

Since the start of the trial, numerous high-ranking McDonald's executives have been forced to testify, including one board member, and the food giant's worldwide resources have been mobilised to deal with the media interest in the case.

The burger chain's legal bill is now believed to have topped pounds 2m, while that of Ms Steel and Mr Morris, who are defending themselves, has been financed by dole cheques and contributions. A support campaign produces a monthly trial summary which is posted on the Internet.

The previous record for an English civil action, in which two farmers sued over alleged damage to cattle by waste incinerators, lasted 198 days.

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