SPECIAL REPORT – After seeing its case gutted and its lawyer publicly called out by a Charlotte County judge, the owners of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series capitulated and walked away from its nearly three year old lawsuit aimed at silencing Save the Tarpon and the group’s more than 28,000 supporters. The sudden PTTS surrender on Monday came less than 24 hours before the case was set to go before a jury the following morning.
Silver King Entertainment LLC, headed by Port Charlotte boat dealer Gary Ingman and his front man Joe Mercurio, had sued Save the Tarpon and its officers for $500,000 in losses it attempted to claim were pegged to the group’s boycott and other efforts aimed at preserving and protecting the Boca Grande Pass tarpon fishery. Ingman and Mercurio’s Silver King owns and operates the controversial Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, a NASCAR-style fishing event described by its lawyer as a cable TV reality show.
Following a brief hearing Monday (November 16, 2015) in Charlotte County court, Silver King’s Tampa attorney Dennis Creed – who had unsuccessfully sought to withdraw from the case following a string of preliminary losses the previous week – filed a terse two paragraph motion dismissing the lawsuit, ending a protracted and costly legal battle that had drawn the attention of free speech and First Amendment advocates nationwide.
Save The Tarpon was represented by Punta Gorda attorney Tauna Bogle. It is anticipated Bogle will pursue costs, fees and additional recovery against Silver King and others who could be found personally and jointly responsible – along with their businesses – for bringing the ill-fated lawsuit. Although an amount has yet to be determined, estimates place Save the Tarpon’s potential claim at more than $200,000.
“I am extremely proud of Save the Tarpon and the individuals named in this lawsuit,” Bogle said. “Like the Minutemen and those who founded our nation many years ago, they stood their ground and refused to back down. They stayed true to what was right. They held firm to their mission to protect the tarpon fishery and to exercise the right we all share – our constitutional right to free speech and assembly.”
Save the Tarpon had characterized Ingman and Mercurio’s case against the group as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a tactic outlawed by the Florida Legislature in July. A SLAPP suit’s purpose is to silence opposing voices by dragging them through the courts with frivolous claims and endless delays as the costs continue to mount. The side with the most money, not the most merit, typically prevails. In testimony taken prior to the scheduled trial date, Ingman and others associated with the PTTS and Ingman Marine admitted the lawsuit’s goal was to silence Save the Tarpon.
The local community and the group’s supporters worldwide were quick to rally to Save the Tarpon’s defense. In one instance, the group raised $25,000 in less than two weeks in an online funding campaign as the case crawled through two courthouses and three judges – including a botched bid to have the case tried in Sarasota County where PTTS TV host Joe Mercurio’s father sits as a judge.
“The PTTS tried to stifle this group’s right to free speech, but the community stood behind Save the Tarpon and said ‘no, our voices will not be silenced’.” Bogle added. “Because of their unwavering stance, free speech is alive and intact in Charlotte County. The tarpon will remain protected in Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande Pass.”
At an upbeat gathering of board members, supporters and others held in the aftermath of Ingman’s capitulation earlier in the week, Save the Tarpon Chairman Tom McLaughlin – who was among a number of community members individually and seemingly randomly targeted by the PTTS lawsuit – echoed Bogle’s characterization of the PTTS case.
“This case was ultimately about free speech and the growing threat these frivolous SLAPP suits pose to your right, our right, to speak up and speak out on matters of public policy that are vital to this community and, in a larger sense, this nation. The danger is real, and what happened with us could happen to anyone. But this week the good guys won, the people of Boca Grande won and the people of Charlotte County won. ”
McLaughlin said it was his belief there was an expectation within the PTTS ranks that Save The Tarpon would roll over, be silenced and abandon its efforts to preserve and protect Charlotte Harbor and the iconic Boca Grande Pass tarpon fishery.
“Ingman, Mercurio and the PTTS underestimated Save The Tarpon’s resolve as evidenced by efforts to caricaturize us as little more than a ragtag mob of unsophisticated dolts,” he said. “It’s no secret Mercurio fancies himself as some sort of make-believe barracks lawyer who likely convinced Ingman that Save the Tarpon would cave in and go away the moment those lawsuit papers were served. It didn’t happen. Instead, it was Ingman and Mercurio who did the caving and the going away.”
In the 18 months following Save the Tarpon’s formation, the PTTS found itself on the receiving end of a sophisticated social media and public advocacy effort that resulted in nearly all of the tournament’s sponsors – including beer giant MillerCoors – disassociating their name and withdrawing their support from the televised tarpon tournament. Save the Tarpon also spearheaded efforts to end the PTTS practice of gaffing and dragging tarpon, and was successful in having the “PTTS jig” banned as a foul-hooking device employed by many tournament participants.
“We didn’t drive sponsors and PTTS participants away, we simply showed them what was happening in Boca Grande Pass and what they were underwriting,” McLaughlin said. “Most didn’t know. And they shared our outrage once the truth was explained to them by us, by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and by some of the world’s most noted tarpon experts. The PTTS didn’t like what was being said so they retaliated with a frivolous lawsuit designed to spend us into submission. They clearly didn’t anticipate the community’s response to this attempted tactic. Unfortunately, it took Ingman, Mercurio and their lawyers nearly three years to figure out that their SLAPP suit wasn’t working.”
McLaughlin said the PTTS and its lawyers knew or should have known the lawsuit had no possible expectation of success. In a landmark ruling dating back to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the Supreme Court held that a lawful boycott similar to Save the Tarpon’s effort was a fundamental and essential right. “History and the law were against them from the start. They brought this lawsuit in the knowledge they had little or no chance of prevailing. And, as every lawyer was taught, that’s pretty much the definition of frivolous. And when we get to fees and costs, that’s what we’re clearly going to show based on the evidence, the PTTS’ own admissions and long-established law. It’s kinda hard to win when you have the United States Supreme Court standing in your way.”
McLaughlin noted that “the right to speak freely is the first among our rights. This is something every citizen, every Southwest Florida editorial board, every organization that advocates for a cause clearly understands. There is an opportunity for a statement to be made by the court that this nonsense won’t be tolerated here in Charlotte County.”
Prior to Monday’s decision by Creed and the PTTS to walk away from the case, Judge Lisa Porter had summarily tossed defamation and conspiracy claims against Save the Tarpon and removed a number of individual defendants for Silver King’s failure to make a case against them. One former defendant, Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lew Hastings, was sued simply because he posed for a photograph with McLaughlin. McLaughlin, along with board members Frank Davis and Mark Futch, were the only remaining individual defendants when Creed dismissed the suit.
Creed dropped the two remaining counts of contractual interference in his motion to the court on Monday. Neither Ingman or Creed have responded to media attempts to obtain comment. Mercurio texted Save the Tarpon with a demand no contact be made.