The Louisiana Supreme Court will not take up the lawsuit filed by Tom Benson’s estranged relatives over the family patriarch’s mental health, leaving in place a ruling that found the owner of the Saints and Pelicans was mentally competent when he altered his succession plans.
The high court’s decision, announced Monday, could mark the end of a family drama over Benson’s mental state that spilled into public view more than a year ago, although a separate lawsuit will continue to play out over control of various assets.
The state Supreme Court was the last venue — barring a federal appeal — where Benson’s relatives could challenge last year’s ruling by Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese that Benson was “able to make reasoned decisions as to his person and his property.”
The office of Randy Smith, the lead attorney for Benson’s relatives, said it could not comment on whether his clients will seek to take the case to federal court.
Benson attorney Phil Wittmann said he considered the case to be over.
Benson announced in January 2015 that his third wife, Gayle, would inherit his businesses after his death, cutting out his daughter Renee Benson and grandchildren Rita and Ryan LeBlanc.
The former heirs then sued Benson, now 88, alleging that he had been manipulated into pushing them out of the family business while he was enfeebled. Benson insisted that his decisions were his own and in the best interest of the companies he runs.
After a closed-door trial last summer, Reese sided with Benson, who was questioned privately by the judge at the Saints’ offices but never took the stand.
His relatives appealed, saying they should have had the chance to question Benson directly.
After the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed Reese’s decision in February, Benson’s relatives appealed to the state Supreme Court, saying the appeals court had misinterpreted the law.
On Monday, the high court opted against taking up the case. The justices did not issue a written explanation for the decision. But in a concurring opinion, Justice Scott Crichton wrote that he believed Reese had acted within the wide discretion a judge is afforded in such cases.
The relatives also have sought to open up part of the record in the mental competency case, which Reese sealed from public view well ahead of the trial. But the Supreme Court last month declined to weigh that request as well, despite complaints that such a broad sealing violated the public’s right to access court records.
Another case involving the Benson family is pending in federal court in New Orleans. In that case, Benson has asked that a judge let him remove nonvoting shares in the Saints and Pelicans from a group of trusts that benefit his relatives in exchange for other assets Benson claims are of equal value. The stewards of those trusts argue that Benson has not offered a trade of equal value.
In a separate case, Benson and his daughter earlier this year settled a dispute over control of a family trust fund set up in Texas before Benson bought either the Saints or the Pelicans.