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McLibel case

The McLibel case is the nickname for an English court action filed by McDonald's Corporation against unemployed environmental activists Helen Steel and David Morris. The case enjoys the distinction of being the longest-running court action in English history.

Although McDonald's has technically won two separate hearings of the case, the partial nature of the victory and drawn-out litigation have turned the case into a matter of serious embarrassment for the company. Because of this, McDonald's has repeatedly announced that it has no plans to collect the ₤40,000 it was awarded by the courts, and has instead offered to pay the defendants to drop their case. The case is currently on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Beginning in 1986, London Greenpeace distributed a pamphlet accusing the McDonald's corporation of everything from selling unhealthy food to exploiting its workers and destroying the South American rain forests. In 1990, McDonald's filed a libel suit against several members of the organization, Steel and Morris included, for distributing the pamphlet on the streets of London.

Although the pair were not actually the authors of the pamphlet they were being sued over, they faced grave penalties and a difficult court battle if they refused to voluntarily apologize and cease distributing the leaflet. The two had no post-secondary school education, and few financial resources. Making matters worse, they were denied legal aid by the courts.

English libel law differs from similar laws in other jurisdictions in many ways. Under English law, the primary purpose of the legal system is to protect the reputation of the accuser. The burden of proving the literal truth of any potentially disparaging statements made therefore falls to the defendant. For a number of years, McDonald's had successfully used the English libel laws to intimidate critics. During the 1980s, the company threatened to sue more than fifty organizations, including major publications.

Given the success of prior threats, McDonald's did not expect a serious fight when they filed suit against the leaflet's distributors. With many of the other activists, they were right. To the company's great surprise, however, Steel and Morris chose to argue the case. Although the pair were deemed no legal match for McDonald's enormous legal assets, they pressed on, representing themselves, receiving much free legal advice, and doing enormous amounts of research in their spare time.

McDonald's greatest mistake in filing the case was to assert that all of the claims in the pamphlet were false. Although this was a safe accusation with respect to a number of the shakier claims-- those involving the rain forests, for instance-- some of the claims were much less controversial. The corporation suddenly found itself on trial before the British people and the world, particularly with regard to those claims involving the health of McDonald's food and labor practices. The case became a media circus, especially when McDonald's top executives were forced to take the stand and be questioned by the two self-taught lawyers.

On June 19, 1997, Justice Roger Bell handed down an 800-page decision in favor of McDonald's. Although this was a technical victory for McDonald's, the case had long since been deemed a public relations disaster by the company. Making matters worse, Bell found that the defendants had proven many of the points made in the Greenpeace pamphlet, noting that McDonald's did endanger the health of their workers and customers (including children), and aid in the infliction of unnecessary cruelty on animals [1]. Although the decision awarded ₤60,000 to the company, it was a pyrrhic victory: the award didn't come close to paying McDonald's legal costs, and the defendants lacked the funds to pay it. Steel and Morris immediately appealed the decision.

Worse, evidence that surfaced during the trial regarding McDonald's business practices proved extremely embarrassing for the company. The defendants learned McDonald's had not only hired spies to infiltrate London Greenpeace, but that the company had hired agents to sleep with members and break into their offices. In addition, it was learned the company had abused its connections with law-enforcement to obtain information on the defendants. The pair later sued Scotland Yard, receiving ₤10,000 and an apology.

The decision of the appeals court further supported allegations in the Greenpeace leaflet that McDonald's mistreated their workers, and that McDonald's food was a cause of heart disease. As a result, the award was reduced to ₤40,000. By this time McDonald's had no intention of collecting the money, and had abandoned any plans to block distribution of the leaflet. Despite this, the pair appealed to the House of Lords. When that organization refused to hear the case, the defendants appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, both as a challenge to this verdict and to English libel laws. The appeal is currently in progress.

There is a book devoted to the case, McLibel, burger culture on trial by John Vidal (New Press, 1998) ISBN 0333694619 (hbk), ISBN 0330352377 (pbk), ISBN 1565844114 (US)

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