By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A judge ruled on Thursday that the 87-year-old billionaire who owns the New Orleans Saints may continue to control the National Football League team he has owned for 30 years after denying a petition by his daughter and two grandchildren to have him declared mentally incompetent.Tom Benson, who also owns the National Basketball Association's New Orleans Pelicans, prevailed in the case following an eight-day trial that pitted family members against him in a New Orleans courtroom.In a six-page ruling, Orleans Civil District Judge Kern Reese noted that in addition to considering psychiatric evaluations of Benson by three physicians and hearing testimony from witnesses for both sides, he had personally interviewed Benson in April to assess his condition.During that meeting, "Tom Benson had clarity of thought and volition, despite some memory lapses ...," Reese wrote, adding that he had "listened carefully" to Benson's responses "and concluded the capacity to make reasoned decisions was present." Benson's daughter Renee Benson Benham and two grandchildren, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, filed the lawsuit in January claiming that Tom Benson is "infirm" and "unable to consistently make reasoned decisions" regarding his assets.The suit charged that Tom Benson's third wife, Gayle, has blocked family members' access to him and is manipulating his decisions.The family's action followed Tom Benson's move in December to ban their participation in running either of his teams, and to name Gayle Benson as his successor in owning them.
Thursday's ruling does not end the family battle as related litigation continues in a probate court in San Antonio, where the family members are fighting Benson's attempt to remove their ownership shares in the sports teams and other businesses from trusts created over a period of years for their benefit.Benson's lawyers have also brought a related suit in federal court in New Orleans.Tom Benson had been grooming his granddaughter Rita LeBlanc, 38, to succeed him as owner and chairman of both teams, but their relationship turned rocky last year as a rift between her and Gayle Benson, whom Tom Benson married 11 years ago, grew more serious and as he developed health issues.
"I cannot wait for training camp to start in late July," Tom Benson said in a statement after the ruling.
Randy Smith, who represents Benson's daughter and grandchildren, said they were "disappointed" with the ruling, and did not say if they would file an appeal.
(Reporting by Kathy Finn; Editing by Eric Beech)