LIVE NOW: Gabby Petito's family discusses their $50M wrongful death lawsuit against Moab Police
Further details regarding the lawsuit are expected to be released during a press conference at 11:30 a.m. CT. The conference will be live-streamed in the video player above.
The Petito family is suing Moab Police over a domestic abuse investigation involving Petito and her fiancé Brian Laundrie in August 2021. The couple was driving through Utah on the way to Wyoming when extended arguments between them reportedly erupted into violence near a Moab grocery store. The suit claims that because police did not apprehend Laundrie for the fight in Moab, it led “to further and escalating domestic violence, leaving her to eventually be strangled to death by [Laundrie].”
Her death came roughly two weeks after the Moab incident. Her body would not be found until Sept. 19, 2021.
Parker and McConkie trial attorneys shared a draft of the lawsuit, which can be viewed in its entirety below. The Petito family is suing former Moab Police Chief Bret Edge, Asst. Chief Braydon Palmer, Officer Eric Pratt, Officer Daniel Robbins, the entire department, and 10 other unidentified individuals, in addition to the department as an entity.
The family is asking for a jury trial. Not listed in the lawsuit are the Arches National Park officers that responded to the incident.
Edge took federal Family Medical Leave Act time during the investigation into his department’s handling of the incident and eventually left the department.
Pratt and Robbins were the responding officers on the day of the incident. They pulled the couple over for speeding and swerving near the entrance to Arches National Park. They found Petito crying “uncontrollably,” according to the police report, and both Petito and Laundrie said they had been arguing throughout the day.
Petito admitted to striking Laundrie first, which led to a struggle between the two. At some point, Laundrie grabbed Petito by the face, leading to cuts. Laundrie also sustained scratches on his arm. Police eventually determined the incident was not a domestic assault.
An independent investigation by the Price City Police Department, however, noted that just because Petito may have struck Laundrie first doesn’t mean she was the “predominant aggressor in [their] relationship,” and noted that Petito was likely a long-term victim of domestic violence.
“Would Gabby be alive today if this case was handled differently?” Capt. Brandon Ratcliffe wrote in the report following the investigation. “That is an impossible question to answer despite it being the answer many people want to know. Nobody knows and nobody will ever know the answer to that question.”
According to the family’s lawsuit, Petito contacted her family after the incident, showing them pictures of the scratches she sustained. Her family says they then began arranging to fly Petito home, but they instead “stepped back” from those arrangements upon learning police were investigating the matter.
The Petito family alleges investigating officers “never directly questioned [Laundrie] about whether he hit Gabby or how she ended up with scratches on her face.” The family called the police investigation “deeply flawed,” claiming officers treated Laundrie “as if he were the victim of domestic abuse rather than the perpetrator.”
“You know why the domestic assault code is there? It’s there to protect people,” Pratt can be heard saying in the body camera footage from the August 2021 incident. “The reason why they don’t give us discretion on these things is because too many times women at risk want to go back to their abuser, they just wanted him to stop, they don’t want to have to be separated, they don’t want him to be charged, they don’t want him to go to jail — and then they end up getting worse and worse treatment and end up getting killed.”
The suit claims Pratt, instead “coached [Petito] to provide answers that the officers used to justify their decision not to enforce Utah law.” The lawsuit says officers were trained by Asst. Chief Braydon Palmer to provide that coaching to people like Petito.
The Utah legislature has removed the ability for officers to use their own discretion in investigating domestic abuse cases.
The lawsuit specifically calls out Pratt for “choosing to believe [Laundrie] … assuming [Petito’s] responsibility for the fight.” Pratt is also accused of turning off his body camera during his preliminary investigation, and the suit calls his employment in Moab into question due to previous allegations of sexual misconduct and domestic abuse while he served as police chief in Salina, Utah. Nexstar’s KTVX is not aware of any charges or convictions on Pratt’s record.
Pratt remains with the department and has since been promoted to detective. He serves as a school resource officer in the Grand County School District.
The lawsuit states that its aim, beyond suing for wrongful death, is to be a “vehicle for systemic change and a reckoning about how the police enforce the State’s domestic abuse laws.”
“The officers egregiously misinterpreted [Petito’s] extreme emotional distress, seeing it as the cause of the domestic violence rather than its result,” states the lawsuit. “Officer Pratt, in particular, was fundamentally biased in his approach to the investigation, choosing to believe [Petito’s] abuser, ignoring evidence that [Petito] was the victim and intentionally looking for loopholes to get around the requirements of Utah law and his duty to protect [Petito].”
The Moab Police released a statement and an independent report on the incident in January, both of which are publicly available. Wednesday night, the City of Moab responded to the threat of the family’s lawsuit, saying Petito’s death “is a terrible tragedy” but that Moab Police officers “are not responsible for Gabrielle Petito’s eventual murder.”
“Ms. Petito is believed to have died in Wyoming in late August 2021, more than two weeks after she and Brian Laundrie visited Moab and interacted with Moab City Police. At that time, our officers acted with kindness, respect, and empathy toward Ms. Petito,” the city’s statement reads. “The attorneys for the Petito family seem to suggest that somehow our officers could see into the future based on this single interaction. In truth, on Aug. 12, no one could have predicted the tragedy that would occur weeks later and hundreds of miles away, and the City of Moab will ardently defend against this lawsuit.”
A draft of the Petito family’s lawsuit can be read below.
The Petito family also has an outstanding lawsuit against the parents of Laundrie on the grounds of “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” claiming the Laundries were aware Brian had murdered their daughter and chose not to act.