Gabby Petito: Family 'Undeterred' In Lawsuit Against Moab Police Dept.
Gabby Petito: Family 'Undeterred' In Lawsuit Against Moab Police Dept.

Gabby Petito: Family 'Undeterred' In Lawsuit Against Moab Police Dept.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT — In the wake of clearing a major hurdle in their $50 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Utah police department involved in the infamous traffic stop and the domestic violence incident with Gabby Petito and Brain Laundrie, the slain Long Islander’s family remains resilient, their attorney said Monday.

Petito’s family sued the City of Moab and its police department in 2022, alleging the actions of officers involved in the traffic stop led to her death in that they did not follow protocol when investigating the domestic violence reported by witnesses on the Main Street of a nearby town. The incident was captured on police bodycam footage, showing an anxious Petito constantly sobbing as she spoke with officers.

The suit alleges the officers did not ask the proper questions that could have identified Petito as a domestic violence victim whose life was in danger. Witnesses reported seeing the couple fighting and Laundrie striking Petito, but the officers determined Petito to be the aggressor and almost arrested her instead, but decided to only split them up for the night.

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Laundrie is believed to have strangled Petito within days after the traffic stop.

On Feb. 22, the Utah District Court issued an order setting aside a bond and lifting a stay that cleared the way for the case to move forward, but also granted the parties’ stipulated motion to dismiss claims against the individual officers involved while maintaining all claims against their employer, the Moab City Police Department, for its failures and negligence Petito’s family’s attorneys say lead to her death.

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Three days later on Feb. 25, Petito’s family’s attorneys filed a second amended complaint as part of their lawsuit against the police.

Salt Lake City attorney Brian Stewart, who represents Petito’s parents, Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt, said that with the lawsuit they hope to continue to raise awareness of the problem of domestic violence and the deficiency in the resources that are available in a similar situation, and the insufficiency in training in law enforcement.

Part of the lawsuit is to raise money for the Gabby Petito Foundation, which is committed to education and working towards changes all over the country to help save the lives of people in domestic violence situations, he said.

Petito was strangled to death by her fiance, Laundrie, whom she had been traveling with in a van while documenting their cross-country journey in a video blog. Investigators placed her date of death around Aug. 28, 2021, about 16 days after the traffic stop in Utah.

In the two and a half years since Petito’s death, her family has held up by keeping her memory alive in the foundation named after her.

“They’re doing well,” Stewart said. “They remain quite busy with their efforts to just speak out on issues and are invited to different conferences.”

They have also been involved in lobbying for change at the legislative level while also continuing to raise their families.

“They both have kids at home and they’re also busy just raising a family and with regular life as well,” he said.

Petito’s family is not about to give up.

“Although this is a long process and filled with difficulty, they’re undeterred, and they’re determined to move forward and do whatever it takes to spread Gabby’s message and to hopefully save other lives,” Stewart said.

A Fated Trip Across The Country

Petito, who grew up in Blue Point, was reported missing by her mother on Sept. 11, 2021, after contact was lost with her family during a cross-country trip that ended near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

Laundrie drove home from Wyoming alone to his parents’ house in Florida. Amid the massive cross-jurisdictional search for Petito involving multiple law enforcement agencies, Laundrie refused to speak with investigators.

Her remains were found on Sept. 19, 2021, eight days after she was reported missing by her mother in her hometown of Suffolk County.

Laundrie’s remains were found the following month in a Florida swamp, along with a confession to her killing, after he shot himself.

Laundrie admitted to strangling Petito after she fell into a ravine and was severely injured, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A Lawsuit Seeking Change In Domestic Violence Cases

The bond and the stay in Petito’s family’s case were hurdles that prevented the litigation from moving forward.

The next steps could be a series of intricate legal spars that depend on how the City of Moab responds to the recent amended complaint.

Attorneys for the city can submit an answer, but they can also ask that the case be dismissed based on the grounds of governmental immunity, according to Stewart.

The city has asked for 30 days from Feb. 25 when the amended complaint was filed.

With the hurdle cleared, Stewart hopes to proceed with written discovery, then followed by the deposition, or formal interviewing of witnesses.

He expects the members of the police department who were involved in the traffic stop, as well as their supervisors, and potentially the Forest Service Rangers, as well as the witnesses who called 911 to say they saw Petito and Laundrie fighting.

Stewart’s law firm, Parker and McKonkie, has several attorneys and staff working on the case, and they could partner up with other law firms, he said.

“There are periods of a lot of work and depending on the case,” he said, adding, “There are periods where we’re waiting for responses and we see that the courts can do that before we proceed.”

Petito’s family recently settled their civil suit against the parents of Brian Laundrie, Christopher and Roberta Laundrie.

The lawsuit alleged that Laundries were aware of Petito’s death and inflicted emotional distress on them by giving false hope that she was still alive in a statement that their lawyer released during the investigation into her disappearance.

It’s hard to say if a settlement can be reached in the case against the City of Utah, Stewart said.

“The family would like their day in court, but these things are fraught with with risk as well,” he said. “And, so we’ll have to see as it develops. Of course, we are always open to discussing settlement with the other side, but we’re not there yet.”

The lawsuit alleges that the officers involved in the traffic stop had a “flawed” investigation, and that Officer Eric Pratt was “fundamentally biased in his approach.”

He chose to believe Petito’s abuser, “ignoring evidence that she was the victim and intentionally looking for loopholes to get around the requirements of Utah law and his duty
to protect Gabby,” the complaint states.

Pratt has since explained that, at the time of the traffic stop, he believed Laundrie was emotionally and mentally abusing Petito and did not assault him, and that Laundrie used physical force on Petito by grabbing her face which left a cut on her face, according to the complaint.

“I think the allegations against Pratt are unique,” Stewart said. “It’s a unique situation in that like on video you have essentially him out loud going through the processes of thinking through what he should have done with the case,” Stewart said. “And then, he pretty obviously chooses to not follow the law even though he is explaining to his junior partner that they don’t have discretion to not effect an arrest.”

Stewart said he agrees with the conclusions of the independent review that it sounds like the officers didn’t investigate properly and didn’t follow the law with respect to responding to domestic violence calls.

“They missed a lot of red flags that they should not have,” he said. “They should have seemed to know the severity of Gabby’s situation,” he said.

Moab spokesperson Lisa Church said the city does not comment on matters related to active litigation.


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