OCEAN CITY — For going on two years, the 2016 White Marlin Open’s top prize of $2.8 million has been hanging in limbo, but it now appears a panel of three federal judges will ultimately decide on how and to whom it is distributed.
Last June, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the White Marlin Open (WMO) and the other named plaintiffs in a federal interpleader case against the supposed winner of the glamorous white marlin division in 2016. During that tournament, angler Phil Heasley and the Kalliannasa out of Naples, Fla. caught the one and only qualifying white marlin, a 76.5-pounder and was symbolically awarded a tournament-record $2.8 million.
However, apparent rules violations regarding the time of catch and subsequent deceptive polygraph examinations by Heasley and the Kallianassa crew landed the case first in Worcester County Circuit Court and later in U.S. District Court. Last June, after 10 months of legal wrangling and an eight-day trial, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bennett ruled Heasley and the Kallianassa crew should be disqualified because of the alleged rules violations and failed polygraph exams and the $2.8 million top prize should be distributed to the winners in several other categories.
Heasley and the Kallianassa crew appealed the decision, asserting the judge’s ruling was based on erroneous assumptions and ignored significant evidence. In the eight months since, there has been little activity in the appeal filed in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, it now appears the ultimate disposition of the appeal, and perhaps a decision on the distribution of the $2.8 million in prize money, could be settled by a three-member federal court judge panel.
Last Friday, the deputy clerk of the court issued a notice of a change in direction in the case.
“This appeal has been referred to a panel of three judges so that they may review the case before scheduling oral argument for possible disposition,” the court’s notice reads. “If the panel to whom this appeal has been submitted unanimously agrees that oral argument is unnecessary, the panel will issue its decision without further notice to counsel that oral argument will not be scheduled. Alternatively, if the panel determines that oral argument is warranted, counsel will receive notice that the appeal has been placed on the court’s oral argument calendar.”
The appeal focuses on two key areas of the ruling including the assumption the Kallianassa put fishing lines in the water prior to the official 8:30 a.m. start time. Another area of focus in the appeal asserts the court made its ruling largely on the post-tournament polygraph tests, which are generally not admissible in federal court because they are often unreliable.
In terms of the timing of the catch, the federal judge was clear in his opinion the evidence, largely in the form of data collected from the Kallianassa’s sophisticated computer and GPS equipment, illustrated the boat could not have had lines in the water after 8:30 a.m. per tournament rules and have fought and boated the 76-pound-plus white marlin by 8:58 a.m., or a difference of about 28 minutes. However, the appeal contends the trial court erred in its assumption the Kallianassa crew did not have the ability to get lines in the water after 8:30 a.m. per tournament rules and still catch and boat a white marlin prior to 9 a.m.