Gabby Petito’s family is seeking $50 million in a lawsuit filed Thursday, claiming negligence by the Moab Police Department led to Petito’s death.
James W. McConkie, one of the attorneys for the Petito family with Salt Lake City-based Parker and McConkie, said the purpose of the lawsuit is to demand accountability, create change in the system to prevent tragedies and honor Petito’s legacy. The lawsuit claims that if Moab police officers had followed Utah law, Petito would still be alive.
"The epidemic of domestic violence is a silent killer, the sign and symptoms of which often go unrecognized by those not familiar with interpersonal violence. ... To combat domestic violence, each of us has to do our part to call out abusers and know how to identify systemic problems that enable abuse, even when that is difficult to do," he said.
McConkie noted that Gabby has four parents who raised her since she was a child, although only her biological parents are represented in the lawsuit because of Utah law, Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt. Petito’s parents and their spouses, Tara Petito and Jim Schmidt, came to Utah for a press conference announcing the lawsuit, and to speak about their loss and the need for change.
Joe Petito said although tragedy has happened in the past, those tragedies didn’t lead to changes in the system.
Unfortunately this (lawsuit) was ... the best way to have those changes made. It’s just that simple,” he said.
He encouraged anyone in a domestic violence situation to reach out for help, and for others to help people know where to turn.
Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old self-proclaimed travel influencer, who was traveling with her fiancé, was reported missing on Sept. 11, 2021. Her disappearance gripped the nation.
Her body was found on Sept. 19 at the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest almost four weeks after her family last heard from her. The Teton County Coroner’s Office ruled Petito died from blunt force trauma and strangulation.
Her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, with whom she had been traveling the country, went missing following the discovery. In a notebook later found near his body at a nature preserve in Sarasota County, Florida, Laundrie admitted to killing Gabby Petito. An autopsy showed Laundrie died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Nichole Schmidt said she was broken by the loss of her daughter, and they miss her. But they consider their loss an opportunity to help other families.
“We feel we need to bring justice, because she could have been protected that day. There are laws put in place to protect victims and those laws were not followed. And we don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” she said.
She said her daughter is a light, and is continuing to inspire others through them and the foundation established after her daughter’s death. Jim Schmidt said their daughter’s story resonated with people around the world, and through a partnership with the Domestic Violence Hotline, their website has helped hundreds of people find access to resources and support.
The family’s claims
Since Gabby Petito’s encounter with Moab police in August 2021, the lawsuit claims that one of the responding officers, Eric Pratt, is a “domestic abuser” who has “used authority and threats of physical violence to control and intimidate sexual partners.” The suit says he was “fundamentally biased in his approach to the investigation, identifying with Gabby’s abuser, ignoring the victim and intentionally looking for loopholes to get around the requirements of Utah law and his duty to protect Gabby.”
Brian Stewart, another Petito family attorney, said Moab police either knew or should have known about Pratt’s history of sexual harassment, and claims Pratt was “manifestly unfit and unsafe to be a police officer.”
At the scene of the incident with Petito and Laundrie in Moab, Pratt said, "I don't care if we use the actual letter of the law," after explaining why the domestic assault code protects people, showing he understood its purpose and the risks, according to Stewart.
"Gabby would be alive today if the officers had done their job to protect her and followed the law," Stewart said.
Stewart said Gabby Petito’s story has already saved multiple lives by giving others courage to report abuse.
“Their resilience and determination to use their tragedy to effect positive change and save lives has been an inspiration to millions,” he said.
He said the family did not take the decision to file a lawsuit lightly, and they do not want to blame police for their loss — but they relied on the officers to protect their daughter. Stewart said once it was clear the officers did not follow the law, the family knew they had an obligation to Gabby Petito to “demand accountability and change.”
Moab police response
Moab city officials publicly recognized Gabby Petito’s death as a tragedy and were sympathetic toward the family, but said police officers were not responsible for the murder. The city said it "will ardently defend" against the lawsuit, and that its police officers acted "with findings, respect and empathy toward Ms. Petito."
"The attorneys for the Petito family seem to suggest that somehow our officers could see into the future, based on this single interaction. In truth, on Aug. 12, no one could have predicted the tragedy that would occur weeks later and hundreds of miles away," the Moab police said in a statement Wednesday.
The city said Petito died over two weeks after the Moab police interaction with her and Laundrie, and in a separate state.
In response to this, Stewart said the Utah Legislature and Pratt both understood that domestic violence situations can lead to death, as shown by a law that was passed that doesn’t allow officers discretion in similar circumstances — and Pratt explained the purpose of that restriction.
McConkie said the Utah lawsuit is part of a bigger effort by Gabby Petito’s parents to raise awareness of intimate partner violence across the country. The family wants to help victims of domestic violence to know there are resources available and that law enforcement is reliable.
“They hope their efforts to help will save lives and give meaning to the senseless, avoidable and tragic murder of their daughter,” McConkie said.
What is in the lawsuit?
The lawsuit, which was filed in Utah’s 7th District Court in Grand County on Thursday, said the Moab Police Department and individuals within the department negligently hired and failed to train officers and that the negligence of individual officers “caused Gabby’s tragic and untimely death.”
It relates an interaction between Gabby Petito and Laundrie and the Moab police on Aug. 12, 2021, which was recorded on police body cameras.
Gabby Petito’s family explains that the Utah Legislature removes discretion of officers in domestic violence situations — requiring a protective order separating the abuser and victim.
“The officers — based on their tragic failure to identify Brian as the abuser — coached Gabby to provide answers that the officers used to justify their decision not to enforce Utah law,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit, attorneys said, is “a vehicle for systemic change, and a reckoning about how the police enforce (Utah’s) domestic abuse laws.” The specific changes requested in the suit include that:
- Officers should not assert immunity for actions that result in a wrongful death.
- Officers should be trained in and use effective methods when evaluating domestic abuse situations so victims can be protected.
- Police departments should stop hiring and retaining officers with professional misconduct or personal biases that make them unfit to serve.
“Gabby did not have to die. ... Gabby would still be alive if officer Pratt had not intentionally coached Gabby and manipulated the investigation to try to find loopholes that would allow him to disregard the mandates of Utah law and his duty to protect Gabby. Defendants’ negligence deprived Gabby of her safety and ultimately her life,” the lawsuit says.
McConkie said signs of domestic violence don’t often seem threatening to others, but they should be recognized by police officers who are trained to intervene.
“Domestic violence is a poison, a silent killer, that could very well affect our own lives and our own loved ones,” he said.
The Petito family also retained a firm that specializes in appellate law, Zimmerman Booher. Dick J. Baldwin from that firm said although a lawsuit cannot solve the Petito family’s loss, it can bring some form of justice.
He said the lawsuit seeks damages based on negligence by the officers and failure by the police department to properly train and screen its officers.
Baldwin said although police officers have some government immunity, a unique aspect of the Utah Constitution is that the right for a wrongful death lawsuit is protected, and they believe the claim is even protected against officers who have immunity.
The lawsuit asks for $50 million in damages, Stewart said, although the actual amount will be determined by a jury or out of court in an agreement between the family and the Moab Police Department.
“We added that number as a symbol of the severity of this problem in our country and how important that it is and how grave the loss is that this family has suffered ... the intent of that number is to show the severity of the problem and the gravity of their loss,” Stewart said.
He said no amount of money can make up for the Petito family’s loss, but the family’s intent is to use any funds they do receive as a result of the lawsuit to support the efforts of the Gabby Petito Foundation to help victims of domestic violence. Each of Petito’s parents nodded in agreement when Stewart said they will be engaged in the efforts for the rest of their lives.