N.C. court hears arguments in fight over fishing tournament prize

RALEIGH, N.C. — Martin Kooyman stood outside a stately courtroom at the North Carolina Supreme Court on Tuesday talking about the 883-pound marlin he helped reel in two years ago in the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament.

Four others were aboard the Citation, the deep-sea fishing boat that Kooyman owned with two others. They were about 25 miles off the Wilmington shoreline, and the marlin — a billfish known to some as the aristocrat of the deep — was twisting, diving and trying to make a swift escape from the tournament fishing crew.

“It was like wrestling a grizzly,” Kooyman said of the swift-swimming, scale-tipping fish.

But it was nothing like the bear of the legal fight that Kooyman and his fellow Citation co-owners have been in with Big Rock tournament officials, trying to get nearly $1 million in prize money they contend they are owed for landing the biggest catch of the 2010 tournament.

The state Supreme Court justices were pulled into the fight Tuesday as they listened to arguments from attorneys representing the Citation owners and their crew, and Big Rock tournament officials, who withheld the $910,000 purse. A ruling could be months away.

Tournament officials contend the Citation crew broke tournament rules, saying first mate Peter Wann failed to obtain a coastal recreational fishing license before the record-setting marlin was caught.

But Darren Jackson and Andy Gay, two attorneys from Zebulon representing the Citation crew, question whether that misstep should have led to the disqualification and withholding of the large prize.

Brad Evans, the attorney representing the Big Rock officials, argues that such a decision should be at the sole discretion of the tournament officials. If courts could decide such matters, Evans said, competitors would be seeking a review of their case any time tournament officials imposed a penalty to their dislike.

But the attorneys representing the Citation owners said officials disqualifying the fishing crew for a violation that did not give a competitive edge was extreme. They also argue that tournament officials engaged in a breach of contract.

“In their brief, they’ve tried to compare this to a local beauty pageant or a pie-baking contest,” Jackson said. “But this is big business, and because of that contract law should apply.”

During the 90-minute court hearing Tuesday, justices had many questions for the lawyers.

Justice Paul Newby asked whether the recreational license was necessary to fish outside the state-governed waters where the marlin was hooked and landed. If the Citation had started its journey in Virginia or South Carolina, not Hatteras, and never motored through North Carolina waters, would Big Rock rules have been violated, Newby asked?

Attorneys for the tournament argued that it fell upon all Big Rock entrants to know the rules, and that rule No. 9 listed what fishing licenses were necessary.

The state of Wann’s fishing license remains unsettled in the courts. He was cited by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries shortly after the tournament for not having the proper license, but that case has not been ruled on yet.

The Supreme Court justices gave no indication of how they might rule. They often take months to decide a case.

The Citation attorneys hope the case gets sent back to Superior Court for a trial by jury or for a different judge to review the claims. The Big Rock tournament lawyers hope the rulings of the lower courts stand and the prize money can then be distributed to the boats that came in with the second- and third-largest catches.

Kooyman and his fellow tournament fishers contend their fight has little to do with the money and more to do with challenging what they argue was an unjust ruling.

They waited days to find out whether the marlin they caught on the first day of the 2010 Big Rock tournament would be the largest.

The wait for the justices could be more agonizing.

“I’ve fished around the world in a lot of tournaments,” Kooyman said Tuesday. “The application of the rules has probably been one of the most interesting part.”

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