Gabby Petito: $50M Civil Lawsuit Could Spark Change Across U.S.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT — The circumstances surrounding the $50 million civil lawsuit in the slaying of Long Island native Gabby Petito, whose fiancé, Brian Laundrie, strangled her to death, could have far-reaching repercussions, sparking change not only across Utah, but further, her family’s attorney says.

Red flags were leading up to Petito’s death, according to Salt Lake City attorney Brian Stewart, who is handling the family’s lawsuit against the Moab City Police Department in Utah.

Petito was seen fighting with Laundrie on Main Street in Moab after the couple left a cafe, which was followed by in a widely publicized traffic stop captured on police bodycam.

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Witnesses reported seeing Laundrie slapping her, and after the pair took off in her van, it bumped into a curb and they were pulled over by police.

During her interview with officers, Petito admitted to slapping Laundrie and was nearly arrested as the main aggressor, but the officers opted not to charge her and instead deemed the incident a mental health crisis before separating them for the night.

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Petito’s family and Stewart have contended the police did not investigate thoroughly enough to determine if Petito was the victim of domestic violence and that her life was in danger, though one officer speculated Laundrie could be emboldened if she was charged in the incident.

In the bodycam footage, Petito can be seen anxious and constantly sobbing as she spoke with officers.

Laundrie is believed to have killed her around 16 days after the traffic stop on Aug. 28, 2021.

When the 23-year-old Blue Point native did not respond to her mother, Nichole Schmidt, she filed a missing persons report with Suffolk County police on Sept. 10, setting off a massive inter-state search.

Laundrie, who by then had returned in her van to his parents’ house in Florida, refused to cooperate with investigators and ended up going into a nearby swamp and killing himself.

In a notebook later found near his remains, Laundrie claims to have carried out a mercy killing, by strangling Petito because she was in so much pain after falling into a ravine.

Petito’s remains were found near Grand Teton National Park on Sept. 19, 2021.

Moab spokesperson Lisa Church previously declined comment, citing the city’s policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

Getting a judgment or the risk of judgment in similar domestic violence situations is what makes the training and implementation of new policies and procedures a serious matter for police departments across Utah and across the country, according to Stewart.

“Money is — unfortunately — the language that the institution can speak; in a way, it’s why we go after them in a civil court to make that point,” he said.

The case not only has the potential for a precedent-setting jury verdict but also a precedent in the way police departments handle domestic violence cases.

“I think that Gabby’s story, in particular, because it was so well-publicized and we have so much of it on those bodycams, it’s already being used as training material in Utah and outside of Utah on how to respond to domestic violence incidents,” Stewart said. “The story itself is a teacher making a difference all over the country and in Utah.”

Attaching monetary penalties for not handling a domestic violence incident makes governments and insurers “stand up and take notice,” he added.

In the days following Petito’s death, her family formed the Gabby Petito Foundation to draw awareness to the plight of families seeking their lost loved ones and helping domestic violence victims.

They have helped bring some of the missing home by highlighting the person’s case on the foundation’s and their social media platforms, and they have raised thousands for domestic violence victims in their fundraising campaign. When they are not spreading the word about the missing, or sharing inspirational messages about family, they are lobbying for change.

Utah law was changed in 2023 with Petito’s family helping lobby for the institution of a lethality assessment protocol being required by officers responding to domestic violence calls.

“Essentially, there’s a series of questions that are supposed to be asked to people in possible domestic violence situations, including if their partner ever tried to choke them, if they have a gun, are employed, or ever threatened the loss of their life,” Stewart said. “There’s a whole series of questions in this protocol that help officers to understand what the risk of escalation is and what’s the risk of someone being killed.”

Thirty-two states require a lethality assessment, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

During the traffic stop, Moab police were supposed to be using that protocol after having signed an agreement with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition about three years before Petito’s traffic stop, Stewart said.

“They had agreed to use it before but they just weren’t doing it,” he said. “It was clear that wasn’t even on their radar and must not have been part of their training.”

Utah’s law requires officers to conduct a lethality assessment in any situation.

Similar legislation passed in Florida last week.

Petito’s father, Joe Petito, told WFLA that the new bill, which would also require lethality assessments, could save an estimated 100 to 150 lives per year in Florida.

“That’s a significant impact in my opinion,” he told the outlet.

State lawmakers in New York are also hoping a bill to establish a Teal Alert for missing adults or those believed to be in domestic violence danger will be passed into law.

Port Jefferson Assemb. Ed Flood and New Suffolk Sen. Anthony Palumbo advocated last spring for their proposed legislation, “Gabby’s Law.”

Ashanti’s Alert Act is used across the U.S. along with Amber Alerts for missing children and Silver Alerts for missing seniors and adults with mental health issues, but New York does not take part in the system, leaving out missing adults between the ages of 18 and 64.

The Teal Alert would make it possible for early public alerts for missing adults or those believed to be in danger, “providing a greater likelihood of the missing adult being found safe and unharmed,” Flood’s office said.

In the meantime, Petito’s family remains determined, Stewart says.

“They’re still raising their own families and trying to live life. They remain undeterred and are willing to do whatever it takes to push this forward and tell Gabby’s story, and if they feel like they can create awareness, that will save another person, then they feel like their work was worth it.”


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