February 26, 2013
Owners of Hatteras-based boat win another round
in long legal battle over Big Rock winnings


By CATHERINE KOZAK



After several defeats in lower courts, the state Supreme Court has handed the charter boat Citation another opportunity to land more than $1 million in winnings it has so far been denied from the 2010 Big Rock Tournament.

On the first day of that year’s June tournament, the Hatteras-based vessel had hooked an 883-pound marlin, the largest in the history of the contest. But days later, the boat was disqualified after organizers learned that its mate lacked an active $15 recreational saltwater fishing license until two hours after the marlin was caught. 

A ruling from the Supreme Court of North Carolina last month reversed a state Court of Appeals decision that had favored the tournament board’s disqualification of the Citation’s prize money: $912,825 in the Blue Marlin Division and $318,750 in the Fabulous Fishermen’s Level.

The state’s highest court sided with the dissenting opinion in a decision issued by the appeals court in June 2012 and ordered the case back to Superior Court in Carteret County to be heard in a jury trial.
 

“It was a substantial victory, and it corroborates with what we’ve been pleading was our case all along,” said Zebulon attorney Andy Gay, who represents plaintiffs Michael Topp, Duncan Thomasson, Martin Kooyman and Black Pearl Enterprises, owners of the Citation. 

“That is, we had complied with the rules. There was no violation that would cause the boat Citation to be disqualified.”

Mike Topp, one of the Citation's owners, said that he was not "not at all" surprised by the decision.

"Right is right," he said. "Wrong is wrong."

Topp, a Frisco homeowner who works as a defense contractor, was reached while on a fishing trip in Costa Rica.

"The Supreme Court," he said, "certainly vindicated our position."

He declined to elaborate on the case before consulting his attorney.

Gay had argued that the tournament rules committee’s decision to disqualify the boat was arbitrary and said the Supreme Court’s ruling supports his assertion.

Greenville attorney Brad Evans, who is representing defendants Big Rock Foundation, Crystal Coast Tournaments, Carnivore Charters, Edward Petrilli, Jamie Williams, and Tony R. Ross, said that it is disappointing that the case has been sent back for trial. But he said he is confident that the court will not find the tournament board’s action arbitrary, a legal term meaning without foundation.

Evans said that the Supreme Court’s ruling did not question the standards the lower court applied to the tournament board’s action.  

“They were well-supported and correct in reaching the decision to disqualify the plaintiffs,” Evans said.

Tournament officials had contended that the Citation violated the contest rules because its mate lacked the state-mandated fishing license when he left the dock. But the Citation parties argued that when the fish was caught, the vessel was in international waters --- where the state license is not required --- and by the time it re-entered state waters, the mate had obtained his license on the Internet. 

After the Citation was denied the prize money, Gay filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the tournament. A judge has since ordered the first-place prize money to be held in trust until the legal issues are resolved.

A judge in Dare County Superior Court, where the lawsuit was originally filed, agreed with defendants to transfer the venue for the case to Carteret County, where it was dismissed in March 2011 by summary judgment. Gay filed an appeal, challenging the change of venue as well as the tournament board’s decision. Gay also said that the judge had a conflict of interest and should have recused himself.

The court of appeals upheld the summary judgment, where a judge resolves a case without a trial if there is no dispute over material facts. But since Appeals Court Judge Robert C. Hunter had dissented in the decision, Gay was able to automatically request a review by the Supreme Court.

In its Jan. 25 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court decision, citing Hunter’s dissent, although Hunter upheld the change of venue.

In part, Hunter said that Carteret County Superior Court Judge John Nobles, rather than deciding himself, should have referred the recusal decision to another judge. He also said that plaintiffs “raised a genuine issue of material fact” about whether the disqualification was arbitrary.

 Hunter said that tournament rules do not require a contestant to be disqualified when a boat breaches a rule.

“Rather, rule 20 specifies that a boat ‘may be disqualified’ for violating a Tournament rule,” Hunter wrote in his dissent. But discretion is allowed in making decisions, he continued.

“If the violation is significant, disqualification would not be arbitrary; if the violation is not significant, however, some penalty short of disqualification may have been appropriate, such as a monetary penalty.”

Gay said that he expects a trial would likely be scheduled in the 2013 fall Superior Court session. 


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Click here to read the Court of Appeals Decision

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