McLibel Trial - Judge found that McDonald's was ``culpable'' in cruel treatment of some animals

.c The Associated Press

LONDON (AP) - A judge ruled in favor of McDonald's Corp. today in the hamburger restaurant chain's libel case against two vegetarian activists, although he said some of the criticisms of the fast-food seller were correct.

``Some are true - some are not,'' Justice Roger Bell said during a two-hour hearing in ruling on the longest trial ever in an English court.

The judge awarded damages of 57,500 pounds, or about $94,000, to both U.S.-based McDonald's and its British subsidiary.

McDonald's spent millions and received much criticism in the case, which legal experts say resulted in a hollow victory.

Unemployed ex-postman Dave Morris and part-time bar worker Helen Steel called McDonald's a multinational corporate menace - abusing animals, workers and the environment and promoting an unhealthy diet.

McDonald's, which is based near Chicago in Oak Brook, Ill., called the attacks false and defamatory. The trial against Morris, 43, and Steel, 31, began almost three years ago and set several legal longevity records along the way.

Bell found that the defendants libeled McDonald's in most but not all of the statements in an anti-McDonald's pamphlet they handed out.

The judge said McDonald's was wrongly defamed when the defendants accused it of destorying rain forests and moving small farmers off their land in Third World countries to make way for massive cattle farming.

The judge also said the defendants defamed McDonald's by calling its food unhealthy and saying that the company lied about how much recycled packaging it uses.

But the judge said some key points of the anti-McDonald's pamphlet were true.

The judge found that McDonald's was ``culpable'' in cruel treatment of some animals, including laying hens kept in small cages their entire lives, and other chickens that are conscious as their throats are cut.

The judge also agreed that McDonald's runs advertisements that encourage children to pester their parents into going to the fast-food outlets.

The judge agreed with the defendants contention that McDonald's restaurants in Britain pay low wages and sometimes treat young, impressionable workers unfairly by sending them home early when business is slow, which lowers their pay.

But the judge did not find the overall working conditions at McDonald's are bad. He said that although McDonald's managers don't like unions, it was unfair for the activists to claim that the company had an anti-union policy.

The judge awarded $94,000 in damages to both U.S.-based McDonald's Corp. and its British subsidiary, but McDonald's U.K president Paul Preston did not immediately say whether the company will try to collect.

Steel and Morris were greeted with cheers and war whoops by dozens of supporters as they walked out of the court. They then marched down the street behind a big red anti-McDonald's banner surrounded by television journalists and by activists who chanted ``No justice! Just us!''

McDonald's executive Preston said, ``We're satisfied with the judgment. We're concerned about the length of time it took.''

Legal experts had predicted McDonald's would win most of the ruling, but they also said the case would be perceived as a big mismatch.

McDonald's refused to comment on reports that the battle cost $16 million, but the company had said repeatedly its good reputation was worth defending.

Morris and Steel say they were the big winners, because the case drew much international attention to their criticism of the company's business practices.

The battle began several years ago, when McDonald's went after activists from the left-wing group London Greenpeace - not related to the well-known Greenpeace International - for handing out anti-McDonald's pamphlets outside its fast-food outlets in Britain.

McDonald's said the pamphlets - entitled ``What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know'' - were totally false and harmful to its reputation.

AP-NY-06-19-97 0830EDT

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