Gabby Petito's family announced on Monday they intend to file negligence claims against the Moab Police Department.
A Utah-based law firm said the police department could have prevented their daughter's death by intervening further when officers responded to a fight between Petito and her fiance weeks before her high-profile death.
The family is seeking $50 million in damages from the police department, as well as city and state officials.
Petito's parents appeared online with lawyers at the Utah Law & Justice Center in Salt Lake City during a press conference to announce the lawsuit Monday.
“Gabby’s parents are bringing this lawsuit to honor Gabby’s legacy by working to save the lives of victims of domestic violence throughout the United States and the world,” said James McConkie, an attorney with Parker & McConkie, which is representing the Petito family.
McConkie said this Utah lawsuit is part of a bigger effort by Petito’s parents to raise awareness of intimate partner violence. They family wants to help victims of domestic violence know there are resources available and that they can rely on law enforcement.
“They hope their efforts to help will save lives and give meaning to the senseless, avoidable and tragic murder of their daughter,” McConkie said.
Petito, 22, was reported missing on Sept. 11, 2021, and 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 fiance, Brian Laundrie, with whom she was traveling the country, admitted to killing her in a notebook found near his body at a nature preserve in Sarasota County, Florida. An autopsy showed Laundrie died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
During the press conference, Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, was emotional.
“This is just bringing back a lot of pain,” she said.
Incident with Moab police
Petito and Laundrie were pulled over by police in Moab on Aug. 12 after 911 dispatchers received reports that the two were fighting. Body camera footage from the interaction raised criticism as to whether further intervention could have prevented Petito's death. An independent investigation found that police made "several unintentional mistakes."
At the time, police determined Petito was the primary aggressor, noting scratches on Laundrie's hands. The videos don't show Moab officers asking about details to determine whether Petito was acting in self-defense — they instead ask Petito if she meant to hurt him, one red flag in the police footage noted by a consultant, Lynn Rosenthal.
Parker & McConkie — the same firm representing the families of Lauren McCluskey and Zhifan Dong in a similar lawsuit against the University of Utah — are representing Petito's family, along with Zimmerman Booher, which specializes in appeals.
"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," said McConkie.
He said failure by the Moab Police Department to follow the law in this instance had deadly consequences. He alleges the police department had been mismanaged for years and has chronically been unable to protect people from domestic violence.
"The Moab City Police Department has neglected its duty to provide the training and resources its officers need to do their job. This is an institutional failure plain and simple," McConkie said.
An independent investigator, Price Police Capt. Brandon Ratcliffe, found that the police officers failed in their duty to protect Petito because of a lack of training and domestic violence resources.
A spokeswoman for Moab said Monday that the city does not comment on pending litigation.
Schmidt said it is painful to watch the videos of Moab police interacting with her daughter.
“I wanted to jump into the screen and rescue her,” she said.
Support for the lawsuit
Brian Stewart, another attorney representing the family, said the Petito family believes it is important to hold government institutions responsible for failures like this.
A prepared statement from Stewart lists "obvious indicators of abuse" that if the officers were trained properly would have shown them Gabby Petito needed protection including:
- The 911 caller reported seeing Brian Laundrie slapping Gabby and chasing her up and down the sidewalk.
- Gabby told officers Laundrie had grabbed her face and left a gash on her cheek with his nail. The law firm said photos show blood smeared on her cheek and left eye, not visible on body camera footage, showing she was possibly grabbed in a way that would restrict her airway.
- She had marks on her arm and reported he had grabbed her arm.
A notice of the intent to file a lawsuit was sent on Friday to Moab police, the mayor of Moab, the Utah attorney general and others. It said the lawsuit will claim the police and other individuals negligently failed to understand and enforce the law and investigate Laundrie's claims. Petito's parents and their current spouses also intend to file wrongful death claims in the lawsuit, alleging that her death occurred because of Moab officers' actions.
"As a result of the defendants' wrongful acts and neglect, Joseph and Tara Petito's and Nichole and Jim Schmidt's daughter was brutally murdered," the letter states. "Gabby suffered personal injuries resulting in death, pain, emotional distress, mental anguish, impaired earning capacity, lost wages and other general and special damages."
In the letter, attorneys share details of the interactions between Moab police and Petito and Laundrie. They said an officer incorrectly determined Utah law only recognizes assault when it is intended. The letter also says the officers and a park ranger disputed what actions they felt comfortable taking and they ended up separating the couple for the night by placing Laundrie with a local domestic violence organization.
The letter said Petito spoke with her parents during police interviews, and her parents demanded she fly home and get away from Laundrie, but learning the police were involved helped her parents accept Petito's assurances that she should stay.
"When asked about her fight with Brian, Gabby displayed the classic hallmarks of an abused partner, attempting to take the blame for the fight because she had hit Brian first and that she did not want to be separated from him. Whether for lack of training or refusal to follow their training, the officers did not press further," the letter said.
Stewart said the first step in filing a lawsuit against the government in Utah is a notice of intent. This notice has to be filed within a year of the event that led to the lawsuit, which would be Aug. 12 of last year. The government has 60 days to respond before the lawsuit is filed.
He said the lawsuit is not designed to punish individual officers, but to support them by demanding changes that will help them better fulfill their jobs. Stewart said the purpose of the lawsuit is to make sure government institutions are held accountable and receive appropriate resources and training to protect vulnerable individuals and prevent tragedies.
“While it is tough to do, we feel a responsibility to support them by demanding that changes needed to help them do their job better will be accomplished.”
Although typically government officers are protected from lawsuits by a Utah governmental immunity statute, Stewart said in this case they believe the right to bring a wrongful death lawsuit in the Utah Constitution “is the supreme law on the subject.”
Building Gabby’s legacy
Schmidt said her family wants to help people, and they plan to do whatever they can to help those who are dealing with domestic violence.
“I think Gabby’s story has touched a lot of people and she’s saving lives. I get people messaging me all the time that they were inspired by her to get out of a relationship,” she said.
Schmidt announced a $100,000 donation to the National Domestic Violence Hotline in her daughter’s honor to help people like her daughter get help.
“You’re better than that, and you can get out. Just do it safely, reach out to someone that you trust,” Schmidt said.
Petito’s father, Joseph Petito, said there are people out there who care.
“People care, we care ... everyone out there should know that there are people that will do whatever we can to help. ... Just reach out, we’ll be there,” he said.
He said he wants people to learn from his daughter’s story.
“Her legacy is to help people,” Joseph Petito said. “Use her as the light that she was to us.”
Petito's parents also filed a lawsuit against Laundrie's parents accusing them of acting in an "extreme and outrageous way" when they did not inform them that their daughter was dead or where her body was located and when they went on a vacation with Laundrie while Petito's family was searching for her.
The family has established the Gabby Petito Foundation, which is designed to promote a greater understanding of the dangers with intimate partner violence, raise attention to domestic abuse and help prevent it.