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Boatmaker files suit for libel

Island Packet Yachts, a Largo yacht maker, has sued Sailing World magazine for libel, claiming the monthly magazine made unfairly critical remarks about the company's 32-foot sailboat. The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Tampa, is based on comments made for a "1989 Boat of the Year" competition published in the Newport, R.I.-based magazine's February 1990 issue.

"The article leads you to believe the boat is unstable," said Drucilla E. Bell, a Clearwater lawyer representing Island Packet. "But their standards among the different boats weren't evenly applied."

In the story, the magazine rated the Island Packet 32, a 32-foot sailboat that sells for around $110,000, as last among three in a runner-up category of vessels between 31 feet and 36 feet in length.

Sailing World is published by the New York Times Co., which was also named as a defendant. George Freeman, head of the Times Co.'s litigation department in New York, said he had not yet seen the suit and declined comment.

The magazine's editor, John Burnham, was also named as a defendant and did not return a telephone call to comment.

The action seeks $1-million in compensation for business lost in the past and in the future as well as $5-million in punitive damages. Ms. Bell said she is not aware of any canceled orders that resulted directly from publication of the story.

According to Island Packet's suit, a single sentence in Sailing World's capsule reviews is at the center of the controversy. "She has a capsize screening test figure of 1.96 _ very high, and due to her enormous 11'6" beam," the review said, according to the lawsuit and a copy of the review filed with the suit.

The lawsuit says that sentence "suggests by innuendo unseaworthiness."

Capsize Screen Value is an industry standard developed jointly by the U.S. Yacht Racing Union and the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. The purpose of the figure is to determine the likelihood of capsizing.

According to the lawsuit, any yacht determined by a mathematical formula to have a Capsize Screen Value of 2.0 or less is safe enough from the potential of capsizing to pass industry standards.

The lawsuit does not dispute the boat's Capsize Screen Value, but it says that the article does not fairly apply the rating to all vessels in the contest, If it had, the suit said, five of the six yachts named as winners would have been rated worse than the Island Packet 32.

The magazine's review of the Island Packet 32 offered this shorthand summary: "Like other boats in this line, the appearance of a shippy, sturdy all-out cruiser, with all sorts of nice detailing." It also noted, however, that the boat "seems a bit chopped off at the aft end compared to last year's 35."

Island Packet, formed 11 years ago, has annual sales of about $13-million. It employs 165 people. The company's product line ranges from a 27-foot sailboat that sells for about $60,000 to a 38-footer for about $160,000. The company sells its boats in the United States, Europe and Japan.