The family of New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson filed a lawsuit on Thursday to challenge his mental state just one day after the 87-year-old announced that his third wife, not his children and grandchildren, would assume control of the Saints' NFL franchise after his death. The lawsuit will affect the legal and financial future of a team that was valued at $1.1 billion by Forbes in August.
In the lawsuit, Benson’s adopted daughter Renee Benson and grandchildren Ryan LeBlanc and Rita Benson LeBlanc allege the Saints owner’s “health and mental capacity have significantly declined” in recent months and that Gayle Benson, his wife of 10 years, has increasingly controlled his actions, ESPN reported.
Several examples of Benson’s “bizarre and uncharacteristic behavior” are cited in the lawsuit, including occasions where Benson allegedly could not name the current president of the United States, did not recognize Renee Benson and, in a Dec. 27 email, declared his intention to sever ties with his family.
Benson’s health was also called into question. The suit claims his diet has deteriorated under Gayle Benson’s watch and that he had to be heavily medicated after undergoing several knee surgeries. “Although he may appear lucid for brief periods of time, such apparent lucidity quickly turns to confusion,” the suit said. The Benson family requested that Renee LeBlanc assume control of Benson’s business interests and for Benson to meet with a psychiatrist.
“I am extremely disappointed by the lawsuit filed against me today by my daughter and two grandchildren,” Benson wrote in a statement published to NewOrleansSaints.com. “Their allegations regarding my mental health are completely meritless and their allegations against my wife equally unfounded. I will vigorously defend my decisions and the businesses I have built. The false accusations in this suit further support the actions I have taken in changing the succession and transfer of ownership.”
Benson LeBlanc was long considered the heir apparent to Benson’s sports empire. A previous succession plan held that Renee Benson would receive a 60 percent share of each of Benson’s teams, while Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc would each receive a 20 percent share of each team. But Benson announced Wednesday that Gayle Benson, 67, would assume control of both franchises -- with the rest of the family effectively cut out of the process -- as part of a plan to “ensure the long-term stability and success” of the Saints and the Pelicans, the NBA franchise.
“This is about the legacy of these two teams and everything we have done for the good of the city of New Orleans and our region,” Benson said in a statement to NOLA.com. “My primary goal is to give the organization the foundation to live on after me for many, many years. I agree that this is somewhat of a change in what has been formally declared, but this is best for our teams and our community.”
Renee Benson, Ryan LeBlanc and Rita Benson LeBlanc have been removed from their posts in the Saints front office. The rest of the team’s management, including executive vice president and general manager Mickey Loomis, will remain with the franchise.
“The most important thing to me is to continue to secure [Tom Benson’s] legacy in the city he loves, New Orleans, forever,” Gayle Benson said in a statement. “And we will do that.”
Benson’s new plan for succession has yet to be sanctioned by the NFL’s other owners. The league requires three-fourths of the NFL’s 32 owners to approve any change in a franchise’s ownership. “We are aware of the intent of the transaction and it is under review for the appropriate league approvals,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. NBA owners would be prepared to support Benson’s plan for the Pelicans, a source told ESPN.