Benson’s trial began June 1 after his daughter, Renee; and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, filed a lawsuit suit against the 87-year-old Benson seeking to have him declared mentally incompetent to continue operating the franchises. Benson fired the three family members as employees in December and January, saying they were incompetent as employees and treated his third wife, Gayle, rudely.
After Thursday’s ruling by Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, Gayle Benson is positioned to succeed him as the owner of both teams. Testimony was heard over eight days from Renee, Rita, Ryan and Gayle, as well as three psychiatrists who examined Benson before the proceedings and various former and current employees of Benson.
In a memorandum explaining his ruling, Reese said two of the psychiatrists opined that Benson had sustained “a mild cognitive impairment that has impacted his short-term memory, but (it) does not rob him of his own volition and ability to make reasoned decisions.”
The psychiatrists also said that Benson was not vulnerable to undue influence.
Benson did not take the witness stand during the trial. But, in his memo, Reese said that he spoke with Benson at Benson’s offices at Saints and Pelicans headquarters in Metairie in April as part of the proceedings. Lawyers from both sides of the dispute were present, but only Reese was allowed to ask questions, the judge said.
Reese said Benson demonstrated some memory lapses but otherwise showed “clarity of thought and volition.”
Benson’s relatives had said he was in declining mental and physical health. Benson had been seen using a wheelchair and walker while moving around after several knee surgeries, but asserted he was otherwise healthy.
After Thursday’s ruling, Benson released a statement thanking the New Orleans community for its support.
“Gayle and I wish to thank the entire community for the overwhelming support that we have received during this trying time,” Benson said. “Through it all, our fans and our sponsors showed unwavering support for our Saints and Pelicans.
“We just finished minicamp in front of so many of our great fans and I cannot wait for training camp to start in late July.
“On Monday, we will introduce our new Pelicans Head Coach Alvin Gentry. Our football and basketball teams are my focus and that is what has me excited.
“And finally, I would like to personally and sincerely thank everyone that worked on this case on our behalf - the lawyers and the staff at the Saints and Pelicans. Now I say let’s go win another Super Bowl and an NBA Championship.”
- Mike Fiammetta