Judge Rules Activists Libelled McDonald's

By Patricia Reaney

June 19 1997

After the longest trial in English legal history, a judge ruled on Thursday that two penniless activists had libelled hamburger giant McDonald's and ordered the couple to pay 60,000 pounds in damages. Judge Rodger Bell found that the statements in a six-page pamphlet published by Helen Steel, 31, and Dave Morris, 43, in 1984 that McDonald's was responsible for starvation in the Third World, destruction of rainforests and for selling unhealthy food "injured the plaintiff's reputation."

But other allegations that the fast food group's advertising was exploitative of children, that it was responsible of cruelty to some animals and that it paid low wages were accurate, he said.

"The majority of the defamatory statements I found to be untrue. Others were true," Judge Rodger Bell said in his two-hour summation of a three-volume verdict on the "McLibel" case that attracted worldwide attention.

Both sides claimed victory after the complicated judgement. "We are broadly satisfied," a McDonald's spokeswoman told Reuters.

"For the sake of our employees and our customers, we wanted to show these serious allegations to be false and I am pleased that we have done so," Paul Preston, chairman of McDonald's Restaurants Ltd (UK) said in a later statement. Morris and Steel, who conducted their own defence during the 313-day trial after being denied state legal aid, told a packed news conference the trial had vindicated McDonald's critics.

"Despite the overwhelming odds stacked against us...the judge has found McDonald's guilty of exploiting children, of cruelty to animals and of having an anti-union attitude," Steel said.

"We wanted to show by example that you can stand up to even the most powerful adversary," added Morris.

The crusading pair vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge English libel laws. Because they have no money they could not pay the damages, they added.

But McDonald's said money was never the issue. "We have always said it was not our intention to bankrupt the defendants. Therefore, assuming they have no funds, it would not be our intention to pursue any damages," the spokeswoman added.

The judge said that although a lot of the statements were found to be untrue, the pamphlet did expose some unsatisfactory conditions at the company that were taken into account when assessing damages. Bell said some of McDonald's publicity material was misleading.

The question of costs, estimated at up to 10 million pounds ($16 million), will be addressed at a later date, Bell said. The "David and Goliath" trial of the part-time barmaid and the unemployed single father accused of libelling the $30 billion a year corporation is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as England's longest ever trial. There has been a longer trial under Scottish law.

The case, which started in 1990, contained 313 days of testimony, eight weeks of closing speeches and six months of deliberation.

Because the case was so complicated -- dealing with testimony from 180 witnesses on topics ranging from food packaging and manufacturing to labour practices, the destruction of rain forests and health issues -- Bell deemed it too complicated for a jury.

While the judge was reading out the summation, he was forced to stop and correct himself, so complex were the issues under review.

The case has also been the subject of a two-part television documentary, a 300-page book and countless newspaper and magazine articles. It has spawned support groups and its own Internet website which features 19,000 pages of court testimony.

Steel and Morris have always denied that they defamed McDonald's in the pamphlet entitled "What's Wrong With McDonalds", but never expected to spend nearly three years of their lives defending the case.

The 1984 pamphlet was produced by London Greenpeace, a little known group with no relation to Greenpeace International.

After receiving libel writs from McDonald's in 1989 three of the five London Greenpeace leaders apologised, but Steel and Morris refused.

Court proceedings began in June 1994 after 28 pre-trial hearings and ended late last year.

During the "David and Goliath" trial the casually dressed pair were unlikely advsersaries for the impeccably wigged and robed Richard Rampton, one of England's top libel lawyers.

Leading lawyer Michael Mansfield has called it "the trial of the century". "The British public owe a debt of gratitude to these two young people," Mansfield told the news conference following the judgment. "The case raised all the issues that touch every part of our daily life," he added.

Lawyers and legal experts doubted McDonald's wisdom in pursuing the action. "Suing penniless individuals, known activists, is a recipe for disaster. It makes them martyrs and gives them a notoriety they relish," said London lawyer Tim Hardy.

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