LONDON -- McDonald's claimed the verdict. The environmental activists claimed the streets.
That's how England's longest trial ended yesterday when McDonald's won a libel suit over a pair of activists who distributed pamphlets that charged the company with promoting unhealthy food, environmental destruction, worker exploitation and animal suffering.
But after spending a reported $16 million on the case that consumed 314 court days over 2 1/2 years, McDonald's emerged with a bit of McEgg on its face.
The court found merit in some of the gripes against McDonald's, as in "a proportion of the chickens which are used to produce [McDonald's] food are still fully conscious when they have their throats cut."
Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp. and its British subsidiary are unlikely to recover nearly $100,000 in court-ordered damages from the activists, David Morris, 43, an unemployed mailman, and Helen Steel, 31, a part-time barmaid.
"McDonald's don't deserve a penny, and in any event we don't have any money," Steel said after the verdict.
Morris and Steel celebrated the finish by leading a parade of supporters chanting "No justice. Just us."
English High Court Justice Rodger Bell ruled that the company had been wrongly defamed by most of the allegations in a six-page pamphlet titled, "What's Wrong With McDonald's?" which was distributed by the activists in the late 1980s.
But on some points, he agreed with Morris and Steel, who have emerged as folk heroes during the drawn-out lawsuit.
"As far as we are concerned, we would have lost if we hadn't fought this case and people had been intimidated," Steel said.
The activists say they'll appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to "overturn the United Kingdom's unfair and oppressive libel laws."
McDonald's officials said they were "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," said Paul Preston, chairman and chief executive officer of McDonald's Restaurants Limited (UK).
McDonald's had thought the case would be settled in a few days. Instead, it turned into a David and Goliath legal battle that has become the subject of a book, a television program and an Internet site.
Writs were first served in 1990, and the trial began in June 1994. About 180 witnesses were called and tens of thousands of pages of documents were produced.
With only two hours of free legal advice and without any legal training, Morris and Steel acted as their own attorneys, often comparing notes while they traveled to court on the subway. In the end, they were no match for the corporate lawyers dressed in gowns and powdered wigs.
But the McLibel trial, as it came to be known, created quite a spectacle, reaching a conclusion yesterday with the reading of the verdict in a court packed with executives, lawyers and spectators decked out in T-shirts, jeans, sandals and nose rings.
"Not everyone loves McDonald's," observed Bell, 57, whose High Court career has been taken up by this one case.
The pamphlet that was produced by London Greenpeace -- which has no connection to Greenpeace International -- leveled several accusations.
Bell found the company was wrongly defamed when the pamphlet accused the fast-food chain of destroying Central American rain forest and pushing farmers off the land in Third World countries.
Bell also found the company was wrongly defamed over allegations that its food caused serious disease and routine food poisoning, and claims that it had lied about using recycled paper.
But the judge found several of the pamphlet's charges were accurate. He said the company did pay low wages to its British workers and was "culpably responsible" for cruelty to some of the animals used in its food products. He also agreed that company advertising targeted children to persuade their parents to take them to McDonald's.
"McDonald's advertising and marketing is in large part directed at children with a view to them pressuring or pestering their parents to take them to McDonald's," the judge said.
Preston said he was "puzzled" by the judge's statement that there was cruelty toward some of the animals used in McDonald's food.
On the issue of targeting advertising at children, Preston said: "The judge said we did not set out to deceive."
In the end, it was difficult to tell who really won. McDonald's executives were grim-faced after the verdict. Morris and Steel walked out of the court house, punched the air and handed out the same pamphlets that got them into legal trouble.
Morris also held aloft a battered briefcase with a message pinned to the side: "Now Read The Leaflets and Judge For Yourself."
Pub Date: 6/20/97