Angler Fails Polygraph and Loses $2.8 Million Prize Money; Passing Test Was Condition Precedent

                    

 

This is not the typical tale of a fisherman misrepresenting the size of the fish that got away. Instead, it’s a story that underscores the importance of following tournament rules.

Ocean City, Maryland hosts the largest billfish fishing tournament in the world, called the White Marlin Open (WMO). (Billfish are large, predatory fish found in oceans and tropical and subtropical waters. Billfish include sailfish, marlin, swordfish, and big eye tuna.) In the 2016 tournament, plaintiff caught the biggest fish, a white marlin weighing 76.5 pounds , arguably entitling plaintiff to the first prize purse of $2.8 million.

A set of rules govern the competition. Those rules state that “all anglers winning $50,000 of more may be required, at the discretion of the White Marlin Open, to take and pass, at the determination of the test administrator, a polygraph test prior to the distribution of any awards.” In addition, the rules state that the WMO may, at its discretion, also request that a polygraph test be taken by other anglers or crew members present on the boat from which winning fish were caught. The rules also permit a winning angler who fails the lie detector to arrange for a second test at his own expense by an operator approved by the WMO who must conduct the test in compliance with specified standards. An additional tournament rule is that fishing lines cannot go in the water before 8:30 a.m. or after 3:30 p.m. on tournament days.

Consistent with the rules, the WMO required the four top 2016 prize-winning anglers to report for polygraph examinations to ensure compliance with tournament rules. The results for plaintiff were “inconclusive.” The WMO and plaintiff agreed that plaintiff and two of his boat crew would undergo additional polygraph tests. These tests were administered consistent with the standards laid out in the WMO rules. None of the three men passed. The test results and the evidence established that plaintiff’s fishing lines were deployed and in the water before 8:30 a.m. on the day plaintiff’s apparent prize-winning fish was caught. The pre-8:30 a.m. start violates the tournament rules. As a result, the WMO notified plaintiff that it would not award him the prize money.

Plaintiff took issue with the results of the polygraph tests, and he alleged deficiencies in their administration. He sued to secure the prize money, claiming breach of contract by the WMO.

The court identified the requirement of passing a polygraph test as a condition precedent which is an event that must take place before a contracting party is obligated to perform. Thus passage of the test is a prerequisite to the tournament’s obligation to award prize money of $50,000 or more to participants catching the largest qualifying fish. Reciting a basic rule of contract law, the court held, “It is fundamental that where a contractual duty is subject to a condition precedent, whether express or implied, there is no duty of performance and there can be no breach by nonperformance, until the condition precedent is either performed or excused.” Passage of the polygraph test was not excused by the WMO. By failing the test, plaintiff did not satisfy the condition precedent. Therefore, plaintiff was not entitled to the $2.8 million prize money, and his case for breach of contract was dismissed.

The lesson of this case: Know the rules for activities in which you participate, and comply with those regulations!

For additional information, see White Marlin Open, Inc. v. Heasley, 262 F.Supp.3d 228 (D. Md, 2017); aff’d, 2018 WL 1531427 (4th Cir., 3/28/2018).

DISCUSSION QUESTION:

If you were advising the White Marlin Open concerning modification to rules, would you recommend any changes relevant to polygraphs? Why or why not?