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White Marlin Open ‘16 appeal fails

No reversible error found by court, next step would be to go to U.S. Supreme Court
By Brian Gilliland | Apr 05, 2018
Photo by: File photo

(April 6, 2018) The appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the federal District Court’s decision to strip Phillip Heasley of the then record-setting amount of $2.8 million in prize money as the announced winner of the 2016 tournament.

Heasley was initially declared the winner by catching the only qualifying white marlin during the tournament. His marlin weighed in at 76.5 pounds.

According to tournament rules, all anglers winning more than $50,000 in prize money as well as any crewmember registered to the vessel on which the winning fish was landed may be required to take and pass a polygraph test. The polygraph provision of the rules has been in place since at least 2004, according to court documents, and is not unusual for high-dollar fishing tournaments.

In 2016, four people, including Heasley, were required to take the test. Three passed, but Heasley did not, according to court documents. Heasley and the crew were allowed to take additional polygraph tests to qualify for the prize money, which resulted in findings of deception.

Based on those findings, the tournament ruled to withhold the prize money and legal proceedings began.

The case ended with Judge Bennett finding the tournament acted within its obligations with regard to the polygraph results, but went a step further and declared Heasley’s lines were in the water earlier than was reported, which is enough for a tournament disqualification alone.

According to the logs and the court’s findings of fact, the boat slowed to a trolling speed of about 7 knots starting at 8:04 a.m. until about 11 a.m. The court concluded the boat was at proper trolling speed, suitable to deploy fishing lines, well before the 8:30 a.m. start. The boat’s captain, David Morris, had begun trailing a school of skipjack tuna, a food source of white marlin. Morris was at the helm of the Kallianassa and was told to give the order to put the lines in the water.

Neither side of the case disputed that the fish Heasley landed, and was subsequently named the winning fish of the tournament, was on board the vessel before 8:58:47 a.m.

However, the court noticed significant differences in the testimonies given by each crewmember in four areas: how long it took to deploy all of the boat’s fishing lines, how long it took to hook the white marlin, how long Heasley fought the fish and how long it took to gaff and boat the fish.

According to the court’s opinion, virtually none of the accounts given by captain, crew or angler agreed with each other, and most of them made it impossible for the fish to be boated by the agreed-upon time of 8:58 a.m.

About a month after the court rendered its verdict, a plan for the prize money distribution was approved by the judge.

The plan made Richard Kosztyu of Hamilton, New Jersey the big winner, bringing home more than $2 million for his 236-pound tuna. Jim Conway of Glen Burnie, Maryland will get about $230,000 for his 790-pound blue marlin. Also bringing home six figures is Mark Hutchison of Cordova, Maryland, with about $123,000 for his 233-pound tuna. Ten other anglers are also compensated.

Also part of the proposal by the plaintiffs is a deal to work out the legal expenses and fees incurred by the tournament. In it, the plaintiffs agreed to absorb $340,000 in costs, with the lion’s share, more than $280,000, provided by Kosztyu.

In 2017, additional polygraph tests were ordered for two participating boats, but the results remained unchanged from the announced winners.

 

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