RALEIGH, N.C. — 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 that facts needed to be aired at a trial.
“Our clients will be happy to get their day in court,” said Darren Jackson, an attorney for the Citation’s owners.
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.
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 fishing tournament argue that the rules said a 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.