A circuit court judge said he would decide in two weeks if a negligence lawsuit filed in Sarasota County by the parents of Gabrielle Petito against Brian Laundrie's parents would be dismissed or not.
During the hearing Wednesday on a motion to have the suit dismissed, Christopher and Roberta Laundrie were notably absent from the court. The Laundries' attorney, Matthew Luka, said afterward it was not unusual for clients to not appear during a motion to dismiss hearing.
Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Hunter W. Carroll was present through Zoom, citing court quarantine protocols as to why he wasn't physically in the South County courtroom near Venice.
The suit, filed March 10 against the Laundries, claimed the couple knew the whereabouts of their son following Petito's death and may have been trying to get him out of the country prior to his death.
Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt, Petito's parents, claimed in the suit the Laundries acted maliciously by not telling them where their daughter was or if she was alive.
The suit states this caused pain, suffering, mental anguish, inconvenience, loss of capacity for enjoyment of life experienced in the past and to be experienced in the future to Petito's parents. They are suing for damages that exceed $30,000.
Both of Petito's parents were present during the hearing, with Schmidt repeatedly touching a silver heart locket draped around her neck that holds some of her daughter's ashes.
Luka asked the case be dismissed with prejudice with no opportunity for Petito's parents to amend it.
Petito and Laundrie had left a cross-country van trip on July 2, 2021, starting in New York state. Petito, 22, was later found dead from blunt force trauma near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. After an extensive hunt for Laundrie, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement found his remains on Oct. 20 in Myakkahatchee Creek Park in North Port.
Suicide confirmation: Medical Examiner's report confirms Brian Laundrie died from self-inflicted gunshot wound
Arguments over affirmative action, right not to speak
Luka argued that the Laundries' acted within their constitutional rights to not speak to Petito's parents, to hire an attorney as soon as their son called them and that it did not constitute outrageous behavior on their behalf to do so.
"People are free to not speak," Luka said, adding that by requiring them to do so, it would go against their First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Luka said there was further issue with the scope of the case brought by Petito and Schmidt, saying it could create a scenario in which someone who has witnessed or has knowledge pertaining to a tragic event, could be sued if they don't step forward and speak up.
"What are we going to require from people in a situation like this?" Luka asked, wondering if they would be required to say all they know, just a little or not speak at all.
Patrick Reilly, representing Petito's parents, said the lawsuit isn't just about the Laundries' silence, but the outrageous actions they took knowing Gabby was dead.
The Laundries took "affirmative action" by carrying on a "normal life like nothing happened," Reilly said, including going on a family vacation even though they knew Gabby was dead and her parents were desperately looking for her.
Carroll pressed Reilly to explain what exactly the Laundries' legally owed Petito's family.
Reilly responded saying the families were not strangers — there was previously a warm, cordial friendship between the engaged couple's parents — and that because of that relationship the Laundries should have said something, even if they had called authorities anonymously with information.
Carroll interjected during Luka's arguments, clarifying that since he is only able to focus on what's said in the legal filings and not based on evidence outside of that scope, he had to take what was written as fact.
This included the statement made on behalf of the Laundries' by their attorney at the time, Steven Bertolino, which included: "On behalf of the Laundrie family it is our hope that the search for Miss Petito is successful and that Miss Petito is reunited with her family."
While Luka argued that it's unclear if Bertolino knew that Petito was dead when the statement was released, Reilly said the statement gave a false impression to the family.
“A lie that gave false hope to Gabby’s parents that she may be alive," Reilly said, adding that the Laundries' should have known that this action would have caused more emotional distress and was simply callous.
"I really feel like our strongest argument relates to the outrageous element and implication of legal rights by the defendants for why they didn't make any statements at that time," Luka told the press after the hearing.
A few moments later, Petito's parents stepped out and stood solemnly behind their attorney, sunglasses hiding their eyes. Schmidt again clutched at her necklace as Reilly spoke.
"We have no doubt he'll make the correct decision," Reilly said when asked about Carroll's decision on whether the case shall continue to trial.
Gabriela Szymanowska is a Report For America corps member covering criminal justice, the courts and the legal system for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Have a news tip? Contact Gabriela Szymanowska at email@example.com, or on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Gabby Petito family lawsuit: Judge to decide in 2 weeks if dismissed