What to Know
- Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie, an engaged couple, went on a cross-country road trip last summer; both are dead. And the young woman's parents say cops in Utah could have saved her life
- They now plan to file a $50 million wrongful death suit against the Moab police department and several members, alleging "had the officers involved had the training to implement proper lethality assessment ... it would have been clear to them that Gabby was a victim of intimate partner violence and needed immediate protection"
- The lawsuit seeks $50 million in damages, alleging that, "As a result of the defendants' wrongful acts and neglect, Joseph and Tara Petito's and Nichole and Him Schmidt's daughter was brutally murdered"
The family of Gabby Petito is filing a $50 million wrongful death suit against a Utah police department and more than a dozen of its members over an August 2021 traffic stop they allege could have saved the 22-year-old Long Island woman's life had the officers involved been trained appropriately, according to a notice of claim the law firm representing them shared on Monday.
The notice of claim, filed on behalf of Gabby Petito's father, Joseph Petito and his wife, Tara Petito, and Petito's mother Nichole Schmidt, and her husband Jim Schmidt, says the 22-year-old was "brutally murdered" -- and "as a result of the defendants' wrongful acts, and neglect."
"Although the damages are not amenable to precise calculation, they have suffered, among other things, a loss of society, comfort, association, love, counsel, care, consortium and protection, loss of the reasonable expectation to associate with Gabby, the value of services Gabby would have provided, and other special and general damages," it reads.
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It also alleges Gabby Petito's personal suffering warrants special damages.
Petito is believed to have been killed by her then-fiance Brian Laundrie, who is also dead, in the weeks following the Moab police stop. The couple had been on a cross-country road trip for months. She was reported missing in early September by her mother, who couldn't get ahold of her and alleges the Laundrie family impeded her efforts to find her. Her remains were found in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park, where the couple apparently traveled after the Moab stop, in late September.
Laundrie's skeletal remains were discovered nearly a month later in a Florida nature park where his parents said he had told them he was going for a hike. He is believed to have killed himself, and writings found in his notebook, part of which was recovered despite being submerged in water with his remains for a period of time, offer an apology for killing Petito.
The Petito family attorneys say her death at Laundrie's hands may not have happened at all had Moab police acted differently during that traffic stop, which involved allegations -- and physical evidence -- that both had hurt each other in some way. Cops separated the couple for the night, with Laundrie checking into a motel and Petito staying in their converted van.
That was Aug. 12, 2021. Investigators believe Petito was killed about two weeks later, on Aug. 27, 2021.
"While the full evidence has not yet been made public, when it is released, it will clearly show that if the officers had been properly trained and followed the law, Gabby would still be alive today," James McConkie, one of the Parker & McConkie attorneys on the case, said in a statement. "Failure to follow the law can have deadly consequences, as it did in this case."
An independent review found several Moab officers made "several unintentional mistakes" by failing to cite Petito. It also found she was likely "a long-term victim of domestic violence, whether that be physically, mentally, and/or emotionally."
Brian Stewart, one of the lead attorneys on the case, said the Petito family agrees "with the findings of the independent investigation that the Moab City police officers failed in their duty to protect Gabby."
"Due to lack of training and access to critical domestic violence resources, the officers failed to properly investigate the reported domestic assault and thus failed to fully appreciate or respect to Gabby's life-threatening situation," Stewart added.
Moab police launched an investigation into their handling of the incident and said the officers involved acted with empathy and respect. It also said it planned to develop more robust domestic violence training and related resources for officers.
In announcing their notice of claim Monday, McConkie pointed to "chronic problems" within the Moab City police department, like "high turnover, lack of leadership and dangerous management for years" in accusing it of failing to protect Petito.
"Despite these chronic problems with protecting victims of domestic violence in their community, the Moab City Police Department has neglected its duty to provide the training and resources its officers need to do their job," McConkie said.
The Moab Stop: Petito Case
Last October, Moab police released body camera footage of the stop. It shows an officer questioning Petito after police pulled over the couple's van on Aug. 12, 2021, when they saw it was speeding and hit a curb near the entrance to Arches National Park. Petito told police that she "kind of punched" Laundrie in the arm in the car after she saw police had turned their lights on behind them. She also detailed the dispute that led witnesses to call the cops on the couple.
Some of what Petito told police in the video was previously seen in another officer's bodycam video that was released in mid-September before Brian Laundrie also went missing. Petito told officers that Laundrie did hit her, as witnesses, said but that she slapped him first because he kept telling her to shut up.
Watch the full 52-minute video here:
"Did he hit you, though? I mean, it's OK if you're saying you hit him, and then I understand if he hit you, but we want to know the truth if he actually hit you, because you know," the officer pushed for more details.
Petito replied, "I guess, I guess, yeah, but I hit him first."
She said Laundrie grabbed her face but didn't punch her in the face. Though his nail did scratch her face during the dispute and Laundrie left a visible mark on her arm, as noted by the officer, after Laundrie grabbed her.
"Definitely I was cut right here (pointing to her left cheek) because I can feel it. When I touch it, it burns," Petito said.
The footage also showed the officer following up with one of the witnesses who reported the couple fighting over a cellphone.
"I want to say that he was trying to grab her phone, and I'm not sure exactly why," the witness said over a phone call.
"And then it seems like he had sort of walked to one side of the van and sort of wasn't letting her in, and then the male was stepping into the driver's seat and she was trying to get into the van, and he said something about, 'Why are you being so mean?' something like that. I remember she sort of hit him a few times. And it wasn't, like, slugs in the face, but just kind of like two kids fighting," the witness added.
Petito had told police that they were fighting over "some personal issues" and reported some obsessive-compulsive behavior that also factored into the argument, according to the report.
“Some days, I have really bad OCD, and I was just cleaning and straightening up and I was apologizing to him saying that I’m so mean because sometimes I have OCD and get frustrated,” she allegedly said.
Laundrie said on the video the couple got into a minor scuffle that began when he climbed into the van with dirty feet, and said he didn't want to pursue a domestic violence charge against Petito, who officers decided was the aggressor.
“I’m not going to pursue anything because she is my fiancée and I love her. It was just a squabble. Sorry it had to get so public,” Laundrie said.
Petito and Laundrie started their drive across the U.S. in July 2021 from Long Island, where both grew up. They intended to reach Oregon by Halloween according to their social media accounts, but Petito vanished after her last known contact with family in late August from Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, authorities said.
The intent to file the wrongful death lawsuit against Moab police comes about a month and a half after a Florida circuit judge in Florida denied a request by Laundrie's parents to dismiss a civil lawsuit filed by Petito's parents alleging the other couple knew their son had killed his 22-year-old fiancee before she was reported missing.
According to court documents, the Laundries allegedly knew since around Aug. 28 that Petito was dead -- because their son had told them. That was two weeks before the young woman was reported missing by her own mother, Nichole Schmidt, who couldn't reach her or Laundrie's parents.
Schmidt filed the missing person report on Sept. 11. Brian Laundrie disappeared two days later and wasn't seen alive -- at least according to any accounts that have been made public -- again.
Brian and Roberta Laundrie have consistently denied any wrongdoing in the disappearance or death of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, who was engaged to their son, Brian, at the time she was killed