McDonald's libel trial `most costly in history'

Case poised to set records reopens at High Court. Nicholas Schoon repor ts
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The Independent Online
The McDonald's libel trial, which has been predicted to be the longest and most expensive such action in British legal history, resumed yesterday at the High Court in London.

David Morris and Helen Steel, the two defendants, who are both unemployed and representing themselves, say they expect the trial to last until December this year, having begun at the end of June last year. The case restarted yesterday after a month-long Christmas break.

The defendants, who say they are anarchists, are being sued by McDonald's, the restaurant chain with 14,000 branches worldwide and global turnover of nearly £16bn. The corporation alleges that outside restaurants and its United Kingdom headquarters they distributed a leaflet littered with untruths, and highly damaging.

The leaflet, published by London Greenpeace, a small environmental group unrelated to the international environmental organisation, alleged that a diet which includes McDonald's food is unhealthy and causes an increased risk of cancer. It also alleged that the corporation contributed to global environmental problems such as the destruction of the rain forest and the ozone layer; that it is hostile to trade unions and is an exploitative employer; and that it uses meat produced in ways that are cruel to animals.

The defence of Mr Morris, 40, and a single parent, and Ms Steel, 29, is that McDonald's has to prove they distributed the leaflet, but that in any case its claims are either truthful or fair comment.

Yesterday, Stacey Stump, manager of McDonald's in Kings Road, Chelsea, was in the witness box before Mr Justice Roger Bell to answer questions from both sides about pavement litter generated by the restaurant's customers. Over the next three months the court will hear evidence concerning food poisoning, animal welfare and employment conditions.

Outside the court, Mike Love, the hamburger chain's chief UK spokesperson and a former aide to Baroness Thatcher, said: "The case was always going to take a long time and I don't think anyone can put a realistic estimate on exactly when it will end. Nothing has changed really. Our reason for being here remains to ensure that the truth is known and untruths exposed. We haven't looked at the question of costs."

Before entering the court, Mr Morris said: "I think McDonald's has completely underestimated our ability to defend ourselves."

He said the libel action had become the focus of an international campaign backed by green groups, the Labour movement and those concerned about civil liberties. He said that the defendants relied on donations from supporters to pay witnesses' expenses.

Total court costs are likely to exceed £4m, with McDonald's using a top libel lawyer, Richard Rampton QC.

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