McDonald's libel case is England's longest trial

By Patricia Reaney

Fri, Nov 1,1996

LONDON (Reuter) - Fast food giant McDonald's Corp.'s marathon libel case against two environmental activists became the longest trial in English legal history on Friday, its 292nd day.

The ``David and Goliath'' case pitting the international hamburger king against a part-time barmaid and unemployed single father is already in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest English civil action.

When defendants Helen Steel, 31, and Dave Morris, 42, began their 10th day of summing up testimony from 180 witnesses on Friday, the trial surpassed the previous record.

This was held by the Tichborne impersonation case, which ended in 1874 after 291 days -- with the jury taking just 30 minutes to find Arthur Orton guilty of perjury by pretending to be the elder brother of a British baronet.

``Today our case has become the longest trial of any kind in British history,'' Morris told reporters. ``It's a milestone for us and for critics of the food industry.''

A dozen protesters, some carrying banners criticizing McDonald's and others wearing sweatshirts with the McSpotlight support group's Internet address blazoned across their chests, demonstrated outside London's High Court.

``We are obviously completely exhausted. I don't think anyone ever had to climb such a legal mountain before without any legal aid and up against a $30 billion-a-year corporation,'' Morris said.

The case, dubbed McLibel and estimated to have already cost 10 million pounds ($16 million), began in 1990. It centers around the company's claims that a 1984 pamphlet Steel and Morris helped to produce damaged the company's reputation.

McDonald's says the contents of the pamphlet, which alleges it promotes an unhealthy diet, ruins the environment, is hostile to trade unions and exploits children and workers, are untrue.

``The length of the case is not an issue,'' McDonald's said in a statement. ``What is important is that the judgment is given on the basis of the evidence. With a large number of witnesses and many complicated issues, it is of little surprise that the case is taking a long time to complete.''

Neither side expected, when the court proceedings began in June 1994, that the trial would enter the record books.

Steel and Morris, who have no legal background, were forced to conduct their own defense after they were turned down for state legal aid.

In their blue jeans and jumpers the pair make unlikely adversaries for Richard Rampton, the robed and wigged top libel lawyer who is representing McDonald's. The company is estimated to be paying more than 5,000 pounds ($8,000) a day in legal fees.

Because of the expert evidence in the exhaustive case on topics ranging from food packaging, destruction of rain forests, labor practices and food manufacturing to health issues, the case has been deemed too complicated to be decided by a jury.

After both sides finish their summing up, the 40,000 pages of documentary evidence and 20,000 pages of testimony, which is expected to last until the beginning of December, Judge Rodger Bell will retire to consider his judgment.

He is not expected to return a verdict until 1997.

09:49 11-01-96

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