RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A lower-court judge's summary decision agreeing to disqualify the $910,000 winner of one of the country's richest deep-sea fishing tournaments didn't smell right to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which is ordering a trial to air whether the prize is justifiably lost for lack of $15 fishing license.
The case involved the huge payday the owners and crew of the fishing charter boat Citation were expecting after landing a monster blue marlin weighing 883 pounds and measuring 14 feet from tail to tip of its swordlike bill. But their day in the spotlight at the June 2010 Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament turned sour days later when contest officials in coastal Morehead City voided their win, saying the 22-year-old first mate from Virginia lacked the required North Carolina fishing license when the fish was hooked. His license was purchased while the Citation was still two hours out to sea and chugging toward a landing.
The Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case less than three weeks ago, ruled Friday that facts needed to be aired at a trial and not disposed by a judge.
"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 high court also sided with attorneys for the winning boat that local Superior Court Judge John Nobles Jr. shouldn't have decided himself to stay on the case, but left that to a different judge to weigh whether Nobles was best for the job.
Nobles is the former law partner and vacation buddy of the attorney representing the boat finishing second. Claud Wheatly III and Nobles had taken multiple vacations together, including during the time the lawsuit was under way, the Citation's lawyers said. Owners of the second-place Carnivore stand to divide $999,453 after taking the winner's share and part of the third-place money.
"Part of our argument was the defendants chose Judge Nobles," Jackson said, "by how they scheduled everything."
Wheatly noted to the high court that the Citation's lawyers have no evidence that Nobles displayed any prejudice or bias in the case.
Because North Carolina's trial court judges are rotated about twice a year, Nobles may not even be a candidate to preside over a trial, Jackson said.
Attorneys for the annual fishing tournament have argued that the rules said a fishing license was required for everyone aboard a participating vessel. The rule was emphasized at a pre-tournament meeting that the Citation's captain and first mate did not attend, said E. Bradley Evans, a lawyer for the contest's organizers.
The nonprofit group that runs the tournament has no gain in disqualifying the Citation, but did so to protect the contest's integrity, Evans said in arguments to the Supreme Court this month.
Jackson said the mate, Peter Wann, thought the Citation had a blanket license covering the whole crew, and that when he found out there might have been a question about whether his license was active, he got online while miles at sea and bought another while still outside the state's territorial waters, which extend three miles from shore.
State regulators couldn't decide when or if Wann violated state fishing laws and had to amend the citation they issued the mate, Jackson said. One tournament rule said North Carolina required a recreational fishing license for anyone aboard, but the language didn't state that failing to follow the state law could lead to disqualification from the contest, Jackson said. He said that disqualification for violating the fishing license rule was as unreasonable as if the same punishment were leveled for other violations that didn't tilt the competition, such as going too fast in a "no-wake" zone or not having the proper number of lifejackets on board.