McDonald's awarded £60,000 in case over leaflet


THE US fast food giant, McDonald's, was awarded £60,000 after winning its record-breaking High Court libel action against green campaigners, Mr Dave Morris and Ms Helen Steel, over a leaflet which attacked the burger chain's reputation.

After the longest trial in English legal history, which is reckoned to have cost McDonald's £10 million, Mr Justice Bell ruled that the company had been libelled by most of the allegations in the leaflet, What's Wrong With McDonald's?, published in the late 1980s and still in circulation.

But the judge found that the leaflet was true when it accused McDonald's of paying low wages to its workers, being responsible for cruelty to some of the animals used in its food products, and exploiting children in its advertising campaigns.

In an epic David and Goliath battle lasting 314 days spread over two-and-a-half years, McDonald's sued Mr Morris (43), a former postman, and Ms Steel (31), a former gardener, over a long-running campaign by environmentalists who accused it of poisoning its customer exploiting Third World countries and employing cheap labour.

Mr Justice Bell took more than two hours to read out a 45-page summary of his three-volume, 800-page judgment, which had taken him six months to prepare.

Friends of the Earth and a senior campaigning barrister, Mr Michael Mansfield, all threw their weight behind the two defendants. Mr Mansfield said the outcome represented a "major victory" for Ms Steel and Mr Morris. Chairing a news conference, he said: "The British public owe a debt of gratitude to these two people.

"They have dared to tread where no others have dared to tread, where those with resources have not dared to go, to raise issues that matter to us all."

The judge had said McDonald's was entitled to compensation for damage to its trading reputation and goodwill, and to vindicate its good name.

But Mr Justice Bell, whose whole career at the High Court has so far been taken up by the case, did not grant an injunction forbidding further publication of the leaflet. He said any further orders, including legal costs, would be dealt with at a later date.

Mr Paul Preston, chairman and chief executive officer of McDonald's Restaurants Ltd (UK), welcomed the judgment. He said the company is "broadly satisfied with the judgment". "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," he said.

"The fact that it has taken three years out of the lives of so many people also gives cause for concern. The length of the trial raises important issues about the cost of justice and the speed with which it can be dispensed.

"We welcome the public debate over Lord Woolf's proposals to reform the civil justice system, especially with regard to the recommendation to allow the judiciary to limit the cost and length of civil litigation.

"There is, of course, a difficult balancing act between fairness and speed but anyone who has been to court knows there is both a financial and emotional cost to litigation; this must be considered when examining how the system works."

The judge rejected a counter-claim for libel damages by Mr Morris and Ms Steel in which they complained they were defamed by McDonald's in the company's reply to their allegations.

Mr Justice Bell said that in awarding damages the financial means of the defendants were irrelevant and he did not know whether the burger chain would seek to enforce the judgment.

Mr Morris and Ms Steel are said to be "unwaged" and McDonald's made it clear from the start of the action that it did not expect to recover any substantial damages or its massive legal costs. It was concerned to stop the campaign against it and vindicate its reputation.

After the judgment, Mr Morris said they had lost the case on a "technicality" and vowed to take their fight to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge Britain's "oppressive" libel laws.