Judge Blocks Fishing-Tournament Winner From Prize Money

BALTIMORE, Md. (CN) – Just before 9 a.m. on Aug. 9, 2016, Phillip Heasley caught a very large fish.

The 76-pound white marlin he pulled in off the coast of Maryland’s eastern shore was so large, in fact, that it was worth $2.8 million as the top prize in that year’s White Marlin Open Tournament. 

But a federal judge’s decision on Wednesday means Heasley will not see a dime of the tournament’s top prize, as he was unable to pass the polygraph test that the White Marlin Open Tournament requires all of its winners to take.

“Heasley failed to satisfy the condition precedent that he take and pass a polygraph examination,” U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett wrote in a 52-page opinion from Baltimore. “Heasley’s performance was not excused. Heasley is not entitled to the $2,818,622.00 in prize money as a matter of law.”

Bennett noted that even if he had credited Heasley’s issues with polygraph tests, the fisherman still would be out of luck, as the court record shows he likely dipped his line into the ocean before 8:30 a.m., breaking another of the tournament’s rules. 

Founded in 1974, the White Marlin Open is one of the largest billfish fishing tournaments in the world and takes place every year in Ocean City, Maryland. Heasley arrived in Ocean City on Aug. 7, 2016, to compete in the tournament aboard his 68-foot fishing boat, the Kallianassa.

Bennett’s opinion says Heasley’s boat slowed down to trolling speed around 8 a.m. on Aug. 9, the second day of the tournament. It was following a school of skipjack tuna near the Baltimore Canyon, a deep undersea trench 70 miles off the coast of Maryland, hoping to find marlin feeding.

Sometime after that, according to the ruling, one of Heasley’s crewmates hooked the winning fish and handed the rod to Heasley, who then fought the fish until he was able to get it on the boat at 8:58 a.m.

Over the intervening weeks, Heasley and his crew each failed two polygraphs that included questions about when they put their lines in the water and how long it took to bring the marlin aboard.

This disqualified them from the prize money under the tournament’s rules, and the White Marlin Open filed a state court interpleader action on Aug. 26.

Heasley, who hailed from Florida, removed the case to federal court, and Bennett presided over a two-week trial this spring that touched on the reliability of polygraph evidence and the tangled timeline of events.

Though Heasley complained in court that the tests were not administered properly, Bennett found these complaints, as well as expert testimony Heasley presented about the unreliability of polygraphs, “petty and without merit.”

He said, even if Heasley had passed a polygraph, it would not have mattered because the fisherman broke a tournament rule by putting his line in the water before 8:30 a.m.

Though Heasley and his crewmates gave a number of different answers to interviewers about how long it took him to reel in the fish, Bennett cobbled together a swirl of conflicting statements and GPS data to form a timeline of events.

By Bennett’s analysis, it took between 10 and 15 minutes for the crew to lay out all of its fishing lines, 15 to 20 minutes to hook the marlin, and 10 to 15 minutes for Heasley to fight and reel it in. It was undisputed in the case that Heasley brought the fish onboard at 8:58 a.m., meaning that even in the most favorable timeline, the crew put their lines in the water at 8:23 that morning, Bennett found.

“The classical concept of hubris has come to refer to a dangerous over-confidence or pride,” Bennett’s opinion states. “It is thus ironic that anglers from the boats named Hubris, Get Reel, and Magic Moment stand to benefit from the Kallianassa’s disqualification in this case. Here, the hubris and over-eagerness of the Kalliansassa’s crew resulted in their getting reels deployed before the 8:30 am magic moment on Tuesday, August 9, 2016.”

Heasley’s attorney Chris Sullivan disputes that his client broke tournament rules.

“We are obviously disappointed by today’s ruling,” said Sullivan, an attorney with the Boston firm Robins Kaplan. “We maintain that Mr. Heasley and his crew abided by all of the tournament rules and regulations. We are discouraged that the court did not credit the evidence that we provided during the trial. We are reviewing the decision and are considering our options.”

Set to kick off its 44th annual competition on Aug. 7, the White Marlin Open meanwhile defends its use of polygraph tests to ensure fairness in the competition.

“The White Marlin Open is pleased its reputation for integrity, built over its forty-three-year history, has been upheld,” a blog post on the tournament website states.

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