The parents of Gabby Petito have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the police department in Moab, Utah, where the slain travel blogger and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie were questioned about a possible domestic dispute weeks before she was reported missing.
The lawsuit, which was initially announced in August in a notice of claim before being filed Thursday, is seeking at least $50 million in damages.
"We feel the need to bring justice because she could have been protected that day," Petito's mother, Nichole Schmidt, said during a press conference Thursday. "There are laws put in place to protect victims, and those laws were not followed. And we don't want this to happen to anybody else."
The suit alleges that if the Moab police had followed a Utah law on domestic violence, "Gabby would still be alive today," James McConkie, one of the attorneys representing the family, said during the briefing.
"The purpose of this lawsuit is to honor Gabby's legacy by demanding accountability and working for change in the system to protect victims of domestic abuse and violence and to prevent such tragedies in the future," McConkie said.
Moab police questioned Petito and Laundrie on Aug. 12, 2021, during their cross-country road trip after a 911 caller reported seeing a "gentleman slapping the girl," according to an independent report on the incident.
Petito told police, "I definitely hit him first," and that he grabbed her face, scratching her, according to the report.
Petito told police she suffered from severe anxiety and other medical conditions, and that the couple's argument had been building for days, according to a police report. Police labeled the incident as a "mental/emotional break" rather than a domestic assault, according to the report.
Moab Police Department Chief Bret Edge said last year that "insufficient evidence existed to justify criminal charges."
The incident took place about two weeks before Petito last spoke with her family, who reported her missing on Sept. 11, 2021. Her body was found about a week later in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest, with a coroner ruling that she had died of "blunt-force injuries to the head and neck, with manual strangulation."
Laundrie, who was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Florida's Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park, wrote in a notebook that he killed Petito, according to the FBI.
The lawsuit alleges that the Moab officers failed to notice "obvious signs" indicating Petito was the victim of domestic abuse and intentionally sought out loopholes to avoid enforcing Utah's domestic violence law, which removes discretion from officers investigating domestic violence incidents.
"The law imposes protections against future harm, including an automatic protective order to ensure that the abuser and the victim remain separated," the complaint states. "But here, the officers -- based on their tragic failure to identify Brian as the abuser -- coached Gabby to provide answers that the officers used to justify their decision not to enforce Utah law."
It also claims the Moab Police Department failed to properly train its officers in evaluating domestic violence situations, among other allegations.
The city of Moab said it plans to defend itself against the lawsuit.
"The death of Gabrielle Petito in Wyoming is a terrible tragedy, and we feel profound sympathy for the Petito and Schmidt families and the painful loss they have endured. At the same time, it is clear that Moab City Police Department officers are not responsible for Gabrielle Petito’s eventual murder," the city said in a statement.
The city said its officers "acted with kindness, respect, and empathy" toward Petito.
"The attorneys for the Petito family seem to suggest that somehow our officers could see into the future based on this single interaction," the city said. "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."
The city of Moab previously conducted an independent investigation into its police department's handling of the incident involving Petito and Laundrie.
In January, the independent report found that police made "several unintentional mistakes" responding to the incident, including not issuing a domestic violence citation to Petito after she claimed she hit her boyfriend first, and not taking a statement from a 911 caller who had reported seeing a man slapping a girl.
In response to the report's findings, the city of Moab said it planned to implement recommendations, including providing additional training in domestic violence investigation and strengthening the review process for incident reports.
This is the latest lawsuit involving the death of Petito.
In a civil lawsuit filed in Florida in March against Laundrie's parents, Petito's parents alleged that Laundrie's parents knew he killed her and were trying to help him flee. Attorneys for the Laundries denied the allegations and unsuccessfully sought to dismiss the lawsuit. A jury trial in the case is scheduled to begin in August 2023.
Schmidt also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Laundrie's estate in May.