Family of Gabby Petito File $50M Lawsuit Against Moab Police Department

Moab Police department talking to Gabby Petito Photo Source: The Moab Police Department via AP

The family of Gabby Petito has filed a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Moab Police Department. The family alleges that officers and the police department failed to properly assess the situation when they pulled over the 22-year-old and her fiance, Brian Laundrie. In failing to properly investigate the domestic violence Petito suffered at the hands of her fiance, a chain of events would lead to Petito’s death weeks after the encounter.

Petito was first reported missing toward the end of August when she stopped communicating with family. On September 1st, 2021, Petito’s fiance returned to his parent’s North Port, Florida, home where he lived with Petito, but she did not return with him. On September 11th, Petito’s family officially reported her missing. It wouldn't be until the 19th of September that Petito’s remains would be found in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. Authorities later ruled that Laundrie killed Petito via manual strangulation. Laundrie, who had also gone missing shortly after returning to Florida, was later found dead in Florida’s Carlton Reserve in October. Officials ruled his death a suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In a notebook found near his body, Laundrie admitted to killing Petito, claiming it was a mercy killing after she had fallen and injured herself.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the police encounter Petito and Laundrie had on August 12th, 2021. The couple was stopped for disorderly conduct while in Moab, Utah, after a witness reported seeing the two engage in a physical and verbal altercation. When officers stopped the couple, Petito was visibly upset, and she recounted what had unfolded between her and Laundrie. According to the police report, Petito had admitted to hitting Laundrie, but neither Petito nor Laundrie were arrested. Following the police stop, the couple was separated for the night.

Petito’s family filed a notice of intent, the first step when filing a lawsuit against government entities. The notice names the Moab City Police Chief, the then-Chief Bret Edge, ex-Assistant Chief Braydon Palmer, and Officers Eric Pratt and Daniel Robbins.

The lawsuit will specifically focus on the police encounter Petito and Laundrie had with the officers who pulled the pair over. The encounter, which was captured on body cam footage, shows Petito visibly upset and crying. Despite admitting to officers that she physically hit Laundrie, both Petito and Laundrie chose not to file charges against one another.

After Petito’s body was recovered, an independent review was conducted on how the police officers handled the encounter with the couple. The review, which was recently completed in January, found that officers had made several mistakes while handling the situation. Among those mistakes was treating the situation as more of a mental and emotional health break as opposed to a domestic violence case.

The police officers also failed to document injuries Petito had suffered, and officers did not further question Laundrie about a scratch Petito had on her cheek.

Petito’s family alleges that the officers did not have the proper training that would have allowed them to thoroughly assess the situation and recognize red flags associated with domestic violence. The lawsuit details that if they had such training, they would have been able to know that “Gabby was a victim of intimate partner violence” and that she needed “immediate protection.”

Petito’s family also detailed that they had a photo that has not been released to the public which shows a scratch and blood smear underneath Petito’s eye. The filing explains, “The photo shows that Gabby’s face was grabbed across her nose and mouth, potentially restricting her airway.”

The filing also addresses inconsistencies during the police stop. One such inconsistency was Laundrie telling officers that he had grabbed Petito’s phone because he doesn't have one, but that he later pulled out a phone from his pocket during the police stop.

“The officers did not question Brian about the inconsistencies in his version of events. Instead, they determined that Gabby was the primary aggressor and that Brian was a potential victim of domestic violence,” The filing reads.

During a news conference, Gabby’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, explained that the police body cam footage was “painful.” She explained, “I wanted to jump through the screen and rescue her.”

James McConkie, one of the lawyers representing the Petito family, explained that not all the evidence was out yet, but once released, “it will clearly show that if the officers had been properly trained and followed the law, Gabby would still be alive today."

The family also alleges that the officers mishandled the police stop because they failed to send a report to prosecutors as required by Utah law when dealing with domestic violence cases. The report was never sent to the prosecutor because the police stop was classified as disorderly conduct.

This lawsuit comes on the heels of another suit the Petito family filed against Brian Laundrie’s family. In that suit, the Petito family alleges that Brian’s parents knew more than they let on about Petito's death and Laundrie’s whereabouts.

Nadia El-Yaouti
Nadia El-Yaouti
Nadia El-Yaouti is a postgraduate at James Madison University where she studied English and Education. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and two little girls. Although she considers herself a workaholic, when she’s not juggling work, you can be sure to find her traveling the world with her little family.
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