Jury awards 'ludicrous' pounds 1.5m libel damages to yacht couple

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The Independent Online
AN AWARD-WINNING boat designer, his wife and their company yesterday won nearly pounds 1.5m libel damages in the High Court over an article in a yachting magazine that criticised their revolutionary trimaran. The magazine faces a bill for legal costs estimated at pounds 750,000.

The pounds 1.485m in damages is the second highest jury award in English legal history, beaten only by Lord Aldington's pounds 1.5m libel victory over Count Nikolai Tolstoy and Nigel Watts in 1989. That case was over a leaflet containing allegations about Lord Aldington's war record.

The award against Yachting World was immediately attacked as 'preposterous and ludicrous' by a defence lawyer, who said there would definitely be an appeal.

John Walker, his wife, Jean, and Walker Wingsail Systems, based in Devonport Royal Dockyard, Plymouth, sued the magazine over an article and editorial comment it ran in February 1993.

Mr Walker, who was represented by George Carman QC, wept as he recalled his 'disgust, rage and horror' on reading the magazine's review of his PlaneSail design. He said it had shown 'complete incomprehension' of the yacht's design, was littered with inaccuracies and appeared to be an attempt to drive his company out of existence.

The magazine's technical editor, Matthew Sheahan, editor Andrew Bray and publishers IPC Magazines denied libel. They claimed their report was justified and a fair and accurate reflection of the yacht's performance in a sea test.

The jury disagreed, awarding Mr Walker pounds 450,000, Mrs Walker, the company's commercial director, pounds 35,000, and their company pounds 1m. The judge, Sir Michael Davies, ordered a 28-day stay on Mr Walker's award above pounds 50,000 and a stay on the company's award above pounds 75,000, pending an appeal being lodged.

A defence solicitor, Rhory Robertson, said after the verdict: 'This is the most preposterous and ludicrous award I have ever heard of in a jury action.

'It will certainly be appealed - there is no question about that. I have every confidence that the Court of Appeal will recognise this as a perverse award.'

Mr and Mrs Walker said: 'Naturally we are delighted with the verdict of the jury who, after five anxious weeks, have totally vindicated our good name and our commercial reputation.'

(Photograph omitted)