After a seven-year court battle between a giant corporation and two penniless environmentalists, Goliath McDonald’s won the lawsuit Thursday; David (and Helen) won the McWar.
In a landmark case, the international hamburger giant won a libel victory against small fry David Morris and Helen Steel, who had distributed leaflets saying the company sold unhealthy food and exploited workers, among other claims. But the judge was also critical of some of McDonald’s business practices, finding truth in assertions that McDonald’s was responsible for cruelty to some animals used in its products and that it exploited children in its advertising.
Concluding the longest trial in English history, Judge Rodger Bell ordered Steel, a part-time bartender, and Morris, an out-of-work postal employee, to pay about $100,000 for libeling the world’s largest food-service corporation and damaging its reputation.
Reading a one-hour and 43-minute summary of his judgment on the 314th day of trial, the bewigged judge found that most key accusations in the leaflet were untrue and unjustified, including those saying the company was responsible for Third World starvation and the destruction of rain forests.
Both sides declared victory in the aftermath of a case that began in 1990, went to court in 1994 and has captivated Britain, triggering a television dramatization, a book and more than 19,000 pages of testimony on the Internet.
Thursday’s verdict drew a standing-room-only audience of journalists and anti-McDonald’s activists to a vaulted courtroom in the Royal Courts of Justice, where Steel and Morris defended themselves against legal battalions that cost McDonald’s as much as $16 million, by some estimates.
McDonald’s would not discuss its costs, but it said it will not try to recover them.
Paul Preston, the American chairman and CEO of McDonald’s Restaurants U.K., welcomed the verdict.
“We are, as you can imagine, broadly satisfied with the judgment given this morning. 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,” Preston said.
Morris, 43, emerged from court brandishing a clenched fist and a briefcase emblazoned with the scrawled message: “Judge for Yourself. Read the leaflet.”
He told cheering supporters on a rainy street: “The only court that counts is the court of the general public.”
Steel, 31, said: “All the basic criticisms have been proved. It’s all a matter of legal interpretation of the leaflet, but that’s not how it’s read by people in the street.”
At issue were accusations made in a 1984 pamphlet--"What’s Wrong With McDonald’s?"--distributed by Steel and Morris as members of London Greenpeace, an environmental group that has no connection to Greenpeace International.
“The majority of the defamatory statements I found to be untrue. Others were true,” the judge said in his 16,000-word summation of a three-volume verdict he reached since closing arguments in December. There was no jury in the trial because of its complexity.
“In my view, the unjustified allegations of blame for starvation in the Third World and destruction of rain forests, and of knowingly selling food with a serious risk of damaging their customers’ health, are particularly damaging,” Bell said.
“On the other hand, there has been an element of justification in relation to the plaintiff’s advertising, their responsibility for some cruelty toward some of the animals which are reared and slaughtered for their products . . . and low pay [in Britain],” the judge added.
On advertising aimed at children, the judge said: “The sting of the leaflet to the effect that the plaintiffs exploit children by using them, as more susceptible subjects of advertising, to pressurize their parents into going to McDonald’s is justified. It is true.”
The judge also noted--as Preston would later tell reporters--that in its advertising McDonald’s “did not set out to deceive.”
Preston said he was “puzzled” by the judge’s finding of cruelty toward some animals. Sows’ and chickens’ movements are restricted while they are being reared, and in some cases they are still conscious when their throats are slit.
Upholding the environmentalists’ criticisms, the judge concluded that McDonald’s was “culpably responsible for cruel practices in the rearing and slaughter of some of the animals which are used to produce their food.”
“Our standards exceed the minimum legal requirements. If those requirements need to be adjusted, that is really a matter for the government and agriculture,” Preston said. About 27 million European chickens are raised for McDonald’s annually.
Bell rejected the environmentalists’ assertion that McDonald’s food is unhealthy, but he agreed that some of company’s promotional materials citing its foods’ positive nutritional benefit “did not match” the reality of products high in saturated fats and salt.
The damage judgment appeared moot. The law required a claim as part of the suit, but the company said repeatedly it has no interest in bankrupting the defendants.
“This was never about money,” a McDonald’s spokesman said.
“McDonald’s doesn’t deserve a penny, and we don’t have any money,” Steel told clapping, cheering, whooping admirers at an after-court rally in front of a banner reading, “We Will Not Be Silenced.”
Action was brought against what the British press calls the “McLibel 2" jointly by the parent American corporation and McDonald’s U.K., which opened an average of one new outlet a week while the trial progressed. There are now 760 McDonald’s in Britain serving about 10 million customers a week.