The court has sent back to the Carteret Count Superior Court for retrial a suit brought by the owners of a boat that was disqualified for a rules violation after catching a tournament-record blue marlin that would have been worth almost a million dollars.
The Hatteras-based Citation appeared on track to win the 2010 tournament and first prize money of $910,000 after catching an 883-pound fish on the first day of the event. But tournament officials disqualified Citation's catch after learning that one of its crew members did not have a valid state saltwater fishing license when the tournament opened and at the time the huge fish was boated.
The Citation's owners, Michael Topp and Andy Thomasson, filed suit in Carteret County Superior Court to have the ruling reversed. In the suit's first test in March 2011, Superior Court Judge John Nobles Jr. ruled in favor of the tournament. The N.C. Appeals Court agreed in June 2012, voting with Nobles by a 2-1 margin. The decision was appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court, which agreed with the dissenting judge at the appeals court level and returned the case to Carteret County Superior Court for a jury trial. The Supreme Court felt that Nobles should not have heard the case since he was a former law partner of an attorney representing one of the defendants, and that the disqualification was too severe a penalty for the rules violation.
"Our clients will be happy to get their day in court," said Darren Jackson, an attorney for the Citation's owners. "That's all they've ever asked for."
The Citation included in its suit – in addition to the tournament – the owners of the boats that were eventually declared the winner and runnerup in the tournament, Carnivore and Wet-N-Wild, to stop them from receiving prize money.
Tony Ross, the captain and owner of Wet-N-Wild, remains disgusted with the actions of the Citation's owners and their attorneys and said it may be another four or five months before the case is brought trial again.
"What I know is it has been 2 ½ years, and nothing is settled yet," said Ross, whose boat caught the third-largest marlin but was moved up to second place when Citation was disqualified. "What I don't understand is that when the Citation's owners initiated the suit, they named (Ed Petrilli, owner of Carnivore) and me in the suit. We had to hire lawyers and spend money we hadn't been awarded yet to defend ourselves in something we didn't start. Their issue was with the tournament, but they decided to include us in it, too.
"In their suit, the Citation's owners tried to block us from receiving the second- and third-place prize money that wasn't even at question," Ross said. "We had to hire attorneys and fight to get that, and now, with the Supreme Court kicking this back to the Superior Court, we'll have even more legal expense that we'll never get back.
"My lawyer said we might get lucky and get a court date in May, but to expect it to be summer. That will be three years since this should have been decided."
At issue is the tournament's decision to disqualify Citation after it was discovered during a polygraph examination before the awards ceremony that Peter Wann, the boat's first mate, did not have a state saltwater fishing license when the winning fish was caught. That fact is not in dispute. Tournament rules require every member of every participating crew to have a license, a requirement that was emphasized at the captain's meeting before the event – a meeting that was not attended by any member of Citation's crew.
Wann realized after the huge fish had been landed that he didn't have an up-to-date license. Using a satellite Internet connection, he purchased one while Citation was in federal waters – which extend from three to 200 miles offshore – while returning to port.
Lawyers representing Citation's owners contend that Wann had a legal state fishing license before the boat returned to state waters, so the disqualification was in error. They contend that Citation did not gain a competitive edge by Wann not having a license and argued that tournament officials engaged in a breach of contract. They also contend that a crew member not having a license was not a serious enough infraction to warrant disqualification and the loss of almost a million dollars in prize money.
Attorneys representing the Big Rock Tournament argued that there was a violation of the rules and the decision on the disqualification should be at the sole discretion of tournament officials. They also said the tournament had nothing to gain from rendering the disqualification except preserving the integrity of the tournament.