A Louisiana judge will decide the future of both of New Orleans’ professional sports franchises and billions of dollars of inheritance money in the mental competency trial of 87-year-old billionaire owner, Tom Benson. Although the court will hear testimony about Benson’s competency from a variety of sources, the testimony of a geriatric psychiatry expert witness dominated the courtroom last week, and will be crucial to the trial’s final outcome.
Estranged Benson Heirs File Mental Competency Lawsuit
Benson’s daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, filed a lawsuit challenging the 87-year-old’s mental competency in January then they were removed from ownership and executive positions in Benson’s two professional sports franchises: the New Orleans Saints of the NFL and the Pelicans of the NBA. According to the plaintiffs, the elder Benson has been manipulated by his current wife and a small circle of executives, and is not competent enough to make decisions without undue influence of the people he keeps closest to him.
Benson argues that he is of sound mind, and that he disowned the plaintiffs because they have consistently mistreated his third wife, Gayle, who he married in 2004. Although the three plaintiffs will still inherit hundreds of millions of dollars from a series of trusts Benson has established over the years, he has made every attempt to remove the three from any ownership positions and shares of his two teams in order to prevent them from inheriting interest in his businesses.
In order to demonstrate that Benson is mentally incompetent and subject to undue influence by the people he keeps close to him, Renee, Rita, and Ryan must show that he does not understand what is happening with his property, and cannot grasp the consequences of his decisions. The plaintiffs would also need to provide clear evidence that Benson is being manipulated by someone else because he is unable to make decisions on his own account.
Geriatric Psychiatry Expert Witness Takes Stand in Benson Competency Trial
Last week, the Benson heirs wrapped up their case against the patriarch’s competency by calling a geriatric psychiatry expert witness to testify. Dr. Ted Bloch III was one of three doctors who performed a court-ordered review of Tom Benson’s psychological competency, and was chosen as an expert witness by the plaintiffs. Dr. Bloch took the stand after six other witnesses, including Renee Benson, took the stand to speak to the 87-year-old’s declining mental and physical health. The plaintiffs elected to use a psychiatry expert to conclude their case and leave the lasting impression that Mr. Benson is not mentally competent in his old age.
Judge Kern Reese has agreed to respect the privacy of all parties involved by keeping the courtroom closed to the public and placing a gag order on all testimony that is offered during the trial, so the specifics of Dr. Bloch’s testimony are unclear. Speaking to reporters after the session, attorney for the plaintiffs Randy Smith noted that Bloch’s lengthy expert testimony was trying, but went according to plan by saying, “We knew this wouldn’t be an easy thing emotionally. It’s really not an easy case, but testimony and the evidence is going pretty much the way we expected.” Dr. Bloch’s geriatric psychiatry expert testimony wrapped up the plaintiffs’ case, leaving questions about how the defense would respond.
Benson Defense Team Begins Case
Lawyers for Tom Benson opened their case with testimony by calling the team president of both the Saints and Pelicans, Dennis Lauscha. Lauscha works closely with Benson, and likely discussed how involved he is in the day-to-day operations of the businesses – reinforcing Benson’s position throughout the trial that he is not only of sound mind, but is an active participant in the ongoing management of his two marquee businesses. The secrecy surrounding the trial has left unclear the list of other witnesses, or if Benson himself will take the stand to demonstrate his mental competency.
Two psychiatry expert witnesses who also evaluated Benson have been seen accompanying the defense legal team to and from the trial hearings, suggesting that both could take the stand as experts in defense of Mr. Benson’s mental health. Given the high stakes, it is likely that Benson’s attorneys will rely on expert witness testimony to bolster their case, but with the gag order preventing access to the trial observers will only be able to speculate about the details when Judge Reese hands down a decision later this summer.