- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

LONDON — A former postman and a one-time gardener took on the McDonald’s fast food giant in court and lost a marathon libel battle, but they hardly have given up the war.

They are now dragging the British government itself into the fight and claim they didn’t get a fair trial — and millions of dollars could still be at stake.

In this modern-day David vs. Goliath battle, Goliath already has won the first round.

David Morris and Helen Steel, convicted of libeling the hamburger chain, were ordered to pay $138,000 in damages. Round Two is now beginning, in a European court.

The “McLibel Two,” as they have been dubbed by the British press, are described by friends as legally naive Londoners, and by their own attorneys as a pair of rank amateurs with little or no legal expertise to take on one of the world’s most powerful multinational corporations.

It is this very naivete that forms the core of the legal arguments that Mr. Morris and Miss Steel have taken to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, where they are claiming that English law favors the rich and powerful and that they are just “two ordinary people” who, therefore, have been victimized.

The libel trial of the two in London’s High Court lasted 313 days before it ended in 1997 — and seven years later, it is still the longest court case in English legal history. From that trial, their attorneys have condensed more than 40,000 pages of testimony and arguments into a 10-page summary for the European court.

In the summary, the lawyers cite the battery of legal wizards and whiz kids aligned against “two inexperienced, untrained and exhausted individuals who were pushed to their physical and mental limits.”

This saga began back in the 1980s when Mr. Morris and Miss Steel began distributing a leaflet titled “What’s Wrong With McDonald’s?” — a tract that claimed, among other things, that eating enough of its hamburgers and french fries could lead to heart disease.

This challenge was at least a decade before lawyers in the United States, flush with cash from suing tobacco companies, turned their attention to lawsuits against fast-food chains on behalf of fat people.

In the earlier legal climate, McDonald’s accused Mr. Morris and Miss Steel of damaging the firm’s reputation and sued them for libel. It was a case that, with its crack team of $3,000-a-day lawyers, the company expected to win in a short walk.

It became a long ramble that ended up costing McDonald’s an estimated $18 million in legal expenses. For its troubles, the fast-food chain won $138,000 in damages from the “McLibel Two.”

On appeal, the damages were reduced to $72,000. McDonald’s has yet to receive a penny, and it apparently has given up trying — if, indeed, it ever expected — to collect anything from a former postman and an ex-gardener turned electrician.

Mr. Morris and Miss Steel aren’t finished. Through their attorneys, they are now arguing in the European court that if McDonald’s spent $18 million to bring the original claim, they should have received “the equivalent legal representation” as the defendants.

The prospect of having to fork out millions of dollars in retroactive legal aid has the British government in a tizzy.

Its lawyer at the European Court of Human Rights, Phillip Sale, argued that it was “highly doubtful” that Britain’s Legal Aid Board ever would have allowed public money to be spent on a case “concerning merely a question of dispute about reputation … and where the overall merits of the applicants’ defense were highly questionable.”

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