McDonald's wins record-setting libel case

USA Today; 20th June 1997

LONDON - In England's longest-ever trial, McDonald's won a libel verdict Thursday against two vegetarian activists who said the multibillion-dollar giant promoted an unhealthy diet and abused animals and workers. But it was a costly victory for the fast-food Goliath, which reportedly spent up to $16 million and nearly three years in court fighting the defendants, an unemployed mailman and a part-time barmaid. The judge awarded McDonald's only $98 and agreed with some of the defendants' criticisms.

McDonald's gets costly win in libel case

LONDON - McDonald's won a libel case Thursday against two vegetarian activists who still managed to scorch the fast-food Goliath when the judge agreed with some of their sharpest criticisms.

The 314-day trial - England's longest - left McDonald's Corp. fending off embarrassing questions after Justice Roger Bell said the chain was "culpably responsible" for animal cruelty and ran ad campaigns that "exploit" impressionable children.

Still, his 800-page ruling found the defendants libeled the Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp. in most other statements in a pamphlet they handed outside its fast-food outlets in Britain.

McDonald's spent an estimated $16 million defending its good name but received a mere $98,000 in damages. In comparison, the lengthy trial gave the activists priceless international publicity in countless newspaper articles and television broadcasts, a Web site, a book and a British TV miniseries.

Former mailman Dave Morris and bar worker Helen Steel had called McDonald's a multinational corporate menace that abused animals, workers and the environment and promoted an unhealthy diet.

McDonald's said the attacks were false and defamatory. It filed suit against the couple nearly seven years ago. The trial began June 28, 1994, and ended after 28 pretrial hearings, 130 witnesses and 40,000 pages of documents.

The top McDonald's executive in Britain, Paul Preston, said he was "broadly satisfied" but puzzled by the judge's comments on animal cruelty. He denied the case had turned into a public relations disaster.

"My responsibility is to protect our reputation, and that's exactly what we've done," Preston said.

But Morris and Steel marched out of court to cheers and war whoops from dozens of supporters, insisting they were the real winners.

"We think we've had a victory because McDonald's brought the case to silence that criticism," Morris said. "The result is we turned the tables and put them on trial."

Along the way, Morris and Steel became self-taught courtroom brawlers, sometimes keeping McDonald's executives on the witness stand for more than two weeks as they grilled them - at times haltingly and confused by legal procedure - over every aspect of the company's business practices.

The pamphlets they distributed in the late 1980s, entitled "What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know" likely would have gained little attention had McDonald's left matters alone.

"The leaflets are circulating in ever greater numbers," Morris said, grinning as he continued to hand them out Thursday.

McDonald's said it doesn't know if it will try getting an injunction to stop them. There may be little point. The pamphlets are on the Internet and thousands are being distributed around Britain.

The defendants say they will appeal the ruling in European courts.

"McDonald's don't deserve a penny and in any event we haven't got any money," said Steel.

Morris and Steel defended themselves in jeans and shirt sleeves, which contrasted with the robes and wigs of McDonald's high-powered legal team.

Bell took six months to render his three-volume verdict.

The judge said McDonald's was wrongly defamed when the defendants accused it of destroying rainforests and moving small farmers off their land in Third World countries to make way for cattle farming.

The judge also said the defendants defamed McDonald's by calling its food unhealthy - even though he admitted that too much McDonald's food eaten for years would give a small number of regular customers "the very real risk of heart disease."

The defendants also defamed McDonald's by saying its meals were likely to cause food poisoning and by claiming the company lied about how much recycled packaging it uses, the judge said.

But Bell found McDonald's "culpable" in cruel treatment of some animals, including laying hens kept in small cages and other chickens that are conscious when their throats are cut.

He also agreed that McDonald's runs advertisements that encourage children to pester their parents into going to the fast-food outlets.

Legal experts had predicted McDonald's would win most of the ruling, but they also said the case would be perceived as a big mismatch.

By The Associated Press

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