Gabby Petito's family files $50 million wrongful death lawsuit against Utah police

·5 min read

The family of Gabby Petito on Monday announced a wrongful death lawsuit against police in Moab, Utah, accusing the department of failing to properly investigate her domestic violence case and protect her.

The lawsuit, which seeks $50 million in damages, comes around the anniversary of Petito’s death.

Petito was 22 when she was reported missing in September 2021. She was on a monthslong cross-country trip living in a van with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie.

Petito’s body was found in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming on Sept. 19, 2021. It was determined she had been dead for at least three weeks, and her death was ruled a homicide by “manual strangulation.” Laundrie, who was named a person of interest in the case, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Florida’s Carlton Reserve in October 2021.

Laundrie admitted to killing Petito in writings that were found after his death, officials have said.

Gabrielle Petito and Brian Laundrie. (@gabspetito / via Instagram)
Gabrielle Petito and Brian Laundrie. (@gabspetito / via Instagram)

The notice of intent filing, which is required before suing government entities, was filed against the Moab City Police Department, its then-Chief Bret Edge, ex-Assistant Chief Braydon Palmer, and Officers Eric Pratt and Daniel Robbins.

The Moab City Police Department did not immediately respond to an NBC News request for comment. A representative for the city of Moab said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The suit will center on a police encounter with Petito and Laundrie on Aug. 12, 2021, during their trip in Utah, shortly before her death.

That interaction made headlines following Petito's disappearance, with body camera footage released showing Petito visibly distraught. According to the police report, Petito told officers she had slapped Laundrie and hit him first and that he had grabbed her face.

But ultimately, both Petito and Laundrie said that they did not want to press charges and that they loved each other.

An independent review, completed in January this year, found that the officers made several mistakes in handling that case —misclassifying it as more of a mental/emotional health “break” rather than domestic violence, and lacking details in their reports.

Their reports lacked details or documentation of any injury Petito suffered — and no one appeared to ask Laundrie about a scratch on Petito’s cheek, the independent review found.

In the new filing, lawyers for the Petito family argue that had police officers involved in that incident had proper training — teaching them to conduct a thorough lethality assessment and recognize signs of abuse — they’d know “Gabby was a victim of intimate partner violence” and needed “immediate protection.”

In that incident, Laundrie and Petito were stopped in their van by officers who saw the vehicle speeding, crossing the double yellow line and hitting a curb near Arches National Park. A witness had called police, reporting they saw Laundrie “slapping” Petito.

Officers Pratt and Robbins interviewed Petito and Laundrie separately.

Robbins said he observed cuts on Petito's cheek and arm in his report, but court documents said that when she was asked about her fight with Laundrie, she “displayed the classic hallmarks of an abused partner” in trying to take the blame, saying she hit him first and didn’t want to be separated from him.

Lawyers for the Petito family said a new photo, that hasn’t been released to the public yet, shows a close-up of Petito's face “where blood is smeared on her cheek and left eye.”

“The photo shows that Gabby’s face was grabbed across her nose and mouth, potentially restricting her airway,” the filing said.

When speaking with officers, Laundrie told Robbins he pushed Petito away to avoid being slapped, and admitted to taking her phone, saying he didn’t have one. But later in that same interview he pulled out his own phone from his pocket, the document said.

“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 document said.

Under Utah state law about domestic violence, the officers would have been required to send a report to prosecutors, but it was not done because the incident was mischaracterized as disorderly conduct, the independent review of the police interaction said.

The filing said that Pratt called Assistant Chief Palmer for assistance on how the handle the situation and he was told to read the assault statute carefully and decide if the situation satisfied the law.

Pratt decided that Utah law only recognizes assault if the perpetrator intended to cause bodily injury — which the suit said is an incorrect interpretation. When Pratt questioned Petito if she intended to cause Laundrie bodily injury when she hit him, she replied no.

Ultimately, police told the couple to separate for the night, and no charges were filed.

James McConkie, one of the attorneys retained in the case, said, "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."

"Failure to follow the law can have deadly consequence, as it did in this case," he said.

He claimed the Moab City Police Department has had “chronic problems with protecting” domestic violence victims in failing to provide training and resources for officers.

“This is an institutional failure plain and simple,” he said.

The lawsuit is in addition to another suit filed by the Petito family in Florida against Laundrie’s parents, accusing them of hindering the search for their daughter and alleging they knew Laundrie killed Petito.

Petito’s mother, Nicole Schmidt, wiped away tears at a news conference Monday.

“This is just bringing back a lot of pain,” she said. “We’re going do whatever we can. That’s why we’re here.”

Schmidt recalled seeing the police body camera footage in question, saying, “Watching it is very painful. I wanted to jump through the screen and rescue her.”

She shared a message to victims currently in abusive relationships, saying: “Just reach out when you can and get the help that you need. ... You can get out. Just do it safely. Reach out to someone that you can trust.”