The estranged relatives of Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson have asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to overturn two lower courts’ rulings rejecting their mental competency suit against the family patriarch.
Attorneys for Benson’s daughter and her children said they filed the Supreme Court appeal under seal Wednesday.
The dispute erupted when the twice-widowed Benson revealed in January 2015 that he had decided his third wife, Gayle, would inherit control of his business empire when he died, instead of his daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc.
Renee, Rita and Ryan — previously tapped to be the heirs — then sued Benson, alleging that Gayle and other interlopers had manipulated him into making that decision while he was in an enfeebled state.
Benson maintained the decision was his alone and was in his businesses’ best interest. After a trial, Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese sided with Benson, who was questioned by the judge in private but was never interrogated by his relatives’ attorneys.
A panel of judges on the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed Reese’s decision last month.
On Wednesday, the relatives’ attorney, Randy Smith, questioned whether the appeals court misinterpreted the law in upholding Reese’s ruling.
While the court found that Benson, 88, was within his rights in not testifying at a closed-door trial, Smith said Louisiana laws governing mental competency proceedings say nothing about defendants having the right to refuse to testify.
“If not overturned, the rulings of the lower courts will permit the truth to be concealed by manipulation of those in a weakened state,” Smith said. He said he hopes the Supreme Court will hear the appeal “so that the elderly and infirm can be protected under the law.”
For his part, Benson attorney Phil Wittmann said he was confident the Supreme Court would deny the appeal for the same reasons the lower courts did.
In a related action, the relatives urged the Supreme Court to unseal at least parts of the mental competency case record, which Reese completely shut off to the public months ago.
They argue that such a broad sealing of the case file violates the public’s constitutional right to access court records, among other things.
Smith said Wednesday’s documents were filed under seal because Reese’s confidentiality order remains in place.
Meanwhile, Benson is scheduled to be deposed for up to five hours Monday and Tuesday in another lawsuit pending in New Orleans federal court.
In that case, Benson has asked a judge to let him swap out certain business assets — including 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 officials overseeing the trusts argue that Benson has not offered a legally required equal trade.
In another case in the family feud, Benson has agreed to yield control of a Texas trust fund benefiting Renee that he had overseen. Shares in a bank, car dealerships and real estate were involved in that case — but no Saints or Pelicans stock.