McDonald's libel case against British evironmentalists enters second year

Rory Mulholland

Agence France Presse, June 29, 1995

The libel action taken by the McDonald's hamburger empire against two London environmentalists -- who accused it of poisoning its customers and exploiting its workers -- moved into its second year here Wednesday.

McDonald's took the case against Dave Morris, 41, and Helen Steel, 29, after they distributed a leaflet accusing the fast food giant of poisoning its customers, exploiting developing countries and its own workers, and damaging the environment.

The leaflet -- "What's wrong with McDonald's" -- was widely distributed in Britain in the 1980s, and McDonald's said it had to take action before the allegations became accepted by the public.

The Independent newspaper claimed Thursday it had seen documents showing the company has a corporate strategy designed to minimise publicity of the case and has drawn up a blacklist of journalists and media companies to whom it will not talk.

Initially expected to run for four months, the case -- deemed too complicated for a jury -- has so far occupied 136 working days and looks set to continue until January next year, thereby setting a record for an English libel trial.

A McDonald's lawyer, Richard Rampton, has branded the allegations against the company as "completely false in every material respect", and is prepared to call up to 150 witnesses to prove it.

He has made it clear the company does not expect to recover more than nominal damages from Morris or Steel, who are unemployed, nor the massive legal costs -- which could run to several million pounds.

But McDonald's has nevertheless decided to continue with the case to secure an injunction banning any repetition of the allegations.

In the High Court here Wednesday, the usually small audience was swelled by a clutch of reporters writing anniversary pieces.

Morris and Steel took turns to doggedly cross-examine Stan Stein, a senior vice-president of McDonald's USA, about work practices.

Alongside them in the massive panelled courtroom, Rampton and the team of McDonald's lawyers were dwarfed by a towering bank of box files.

Morris and Steel spoke after Wednesday's hearing about reports that McDonald's was seeking to end the action. They said the company had twice called discussions, most recently last week, and that confidential letters had been exchanged.

McDonald's spokesman Mike Love said there had been confidential discussions but would not comment on Wednesday's statement by the defendants.

The fast food restaurant chain has 15,370 restaurants worldwide. The United States has the most McDonald's restaurants of the 80 countries where it operates, with 9,795.

Japan leads the field abroad with 1,138, followed by Canada with 727, Germany with 584, Britain with 530, Australia with 458, and France with 357.

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