TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The family of Gabby Petito has filed a wrongful death lawsuit for $50 million in damages against the Moab City Police Department related to their handling of a domestic incident between Petito and her then-fiancé, Brian Laundrie.
According to a Monday press release, lawyers representing Petito’s family allege that Petito would have still been alive had officers been properly trained to handle domestic violence situations.
“Moab City Police Department has been plagued by high turnover, lack of leadership and dangerous mismanagement for years,” said James McConkie, one of the attorneys representing the Petito family.
McConkie said the department had been neglecting to give proper resources to its officers, calling it an “institutional failure.
On Aug. 12, 2021, Moab police responded to a call about an altercation between the two, stopping their van near the entrance of Arches National Park.
Police found Petito crying “uncontrollably” during the traffic stop. Officials said Petito told officers that she had been struggling with her mental health and that she had been arguing with Laundrie, leading to their altercation.
Laundrie told authorities that he and Petito had been traveling for four to five months at the time, which caused a strain on their relationship. He said during their argument in Moab, he tried to separate Petito from himself so they could calm down.
According to the attorneys for the Petito family, the 22-year-old woman was on the phone with her parents during the incident, who demanded that she get away from Laundrie. Petito’s parents offered to pay for her to ride to Salt Lake City and fly home, but when they learned that the police were involved, they “accepted Gabby’s assurances that she should continue her trip.”
At the time, Moab police officers determined the situation was not a domestic assault, considering it a mental health crisis. An officer at the scene also classified Petito as the primary aggressor in the incident and decided to separate the two for the night.
“He’s going to a hotel. I’m giving you the keys to the van. I’m giving him a ride to the hotel. Everything will be okay,” the officer said.
However, this incident ended up putting the Moab Police Department in the spotlight after Laundrie returned from the couple’s trip to his family’s home in North Port, Florida, without Petito — launching a search for the missing 22-year-old woman.
Petito’s remains would later be found in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, with the local coroner determining the cause of death to be manual strangulation.
Weeks later, Laundrie’s remains were found in the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park. Authorities later determined he died by suicide after disappearing from his parent’s house.
The controversial nature of the Moab Police Department’s handling of the earlier domestic incident raised questions on whether officers could have done more to intervene, saving Gabby’s Life.
An independent review by another police agency determined that the officers made “unintentional mistakes” while responding to the situation.
“I am confident and comfortable in stating the mistakes that were made were not made intentionally,” the review from the Price City Police Department said. “The officers did not know what they were doing was wrong at the time and did not make the decision to benefit themselves in any way. They both believed at the time they were making the right decision based on the totality of the circumstances that were presented.”
The review also said while Petito was the predominant aggressor in the Moab incident, it was “very likely” that Petito was reacting to long-term domestic violence at Laundrie’s hands.
“Gabby had a job which she left in order to travel the country with Brian,” the report said. “Gabby was trying to start an online career which Brian didn’t support or believe she could accomplish. Brian tried locking Gabby out of the van in an attempt to control her movements. Brian said he was trying to ‘make’ Gabby calm down and Gabby said she was trying to get Brian to stop telling her to calm down. Gabby also said Brian kept telling her to ‘shut up.’”
The officer who wrote the report also said it is impossible to answer whether Petito would be alive if the case were handled differently.
The Petito family previously filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Laundrie’s parents for allegedly “intentional acts” that led to their daughter’s death.
A motion to dismiss that lawsuit was denied in June 2022.