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‘Particularly Callous and Cruel’: Judge Rules Gabby Petito’s Parents Can Sue Brian Laundrie’s Parents for Emotional Distress

Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie appear in Aug. 12, 2021 Moab, Utah police body camera videos.

Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie appear in Aug. 12, 2021 Moab, Utah police body camera videos.

A Florida judge has allowed the parents of Gabby Petito to pursue a lawsuit against Brian Laundrie’s parents over a statement that allegedly gave the Gabby’s family false hope that their daughter was still alive.

Brian confessed to his diary that he killed Gabby on Aug. 27, 2021, while the two were traveling in a van through the western U.S.

According to Gabby’s parents, Brian sent text messages to Gabby’s mother while posing as his fiancée after killing her. According to the lawsuit, Brian returned alone to his parents’ home in North Port, Florida, on Sept. 1 and is believed to have vacationed with his parents at Fort DeSoto Park between Sept. 6 and Sept. 7. Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt, Gabby’s parents, further allege that the Laundries ignored their frantic requests for information about their daughter; the Laundrie parents allegedly went so far as to block the text messages from — and the social media accounts of — Gabby’s parents.

Gabby’s remains were found on Sept. 19 near a camping area along the border of the Grand Teton National Park in northern Wyoming. Brian’s remains were found in an environmental reserve in Florida on Oct. 20. Authorities determined that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot would to the head.

Gabby’s parents allege that Christopher Laundrie and Roberta Laundrie, Brian’s parents, “acted with malice or great indifference” and “exhibited extreme and outrageous conduct which constitutes behavior, under the circumstances, which goes beyond all possible bounds of decency and is regarded as shocking atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”

That conduct included a statement issued a statement through the Laundrie family’s lawyer expressing the family’s hope for Gabby’s return — even though they allegedly already knew by that time that she was dead.

Joseph and Nichole sued in March and filed an amended complaint in April alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Laundries moved to dismiss.

On Thursday, Circuit Court Judge Hunter Carroll announced that he will let the Petito/Schmidt lawsuit proceed.

Gabby’s parents allege that the Laundries went on vacation “knowing that Brian Laundrie had murdered Gabrielle Petito.”

“[I]t is believed they knew where her body was located, and further knew that Gabrielle Petito’s parents were attempting to locate her,” the lawsuit further alleged.

In the days after that vacation, the Laundries issued a statement through Steven Bertolino, their New York-based lawyer.

“It is our understanding that a search has been organized for Miss Petito in or near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming,” that statement said. “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.”

The Laundries’ Florida-based lawyer, Matthew Luka, argued that his clients were acting within their constitutional rights — specifically the First Amendment free speech right and the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.

Carroll rejected that argument.

“As alleged by the Plaintiffs, the Laundries made their statement knowing that Gabby was dead, knowing the location of her body, and knowing that her parents were frantically looking for her,” Carroll wrote. “If this is true, then the Laundries’ statement was particularly callous and cruel, and it is sufficiently outrageous to state claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Carroll noted that the context of the Laundries’ statement matters.

“Florida law recognizes that family members are particularly susceptible to emotional distress around the time of a loved one’s death,” Carroll wrote. “Malicious conduct during that timeframe can rise to the level of outrage.”

Carroll noted that the case would have been more readily dispatched had Joseph and Nichole sued only on the basis of what the Laundries didn’t say.

“Plaintiffs have not identified, and the Court is unaware, of any legal duty the Laundries would have owed to Plaintiffs to tell the Plaintiffs that Gabby was dead or the location of her body,” Carroll wrote, adding that Joseph and Nichole similarly did not identify a duty the Laundries had to them that would require that they responded to their text messages “or refrain from taking a vacation” while Gabby’s parents searched for her.

“If the facts of this case truly were about silence with no affirmative act by the Laundries,” Carrol wrote, he would have “resolved this case” in favor of the defendants.

“Had the Laundries truly stayed silent, the Court would have granted the motion to dismiss in the Laundries’ favor,” Carroll wrote.

“But they did not stay silent,” the judge added.

Luka, the Laundries’ attorney, said that he was disappointed with Carroll’s ruling.

“Chris and Roberta Laundrie, and myself, are disappointed with Judge Carroll’s decision to deny the motion and allow this lawsuit to proceed,” Luka said in a statement emailed to Law&Crime. “Judge Carroll points out that the September 14, 2021 statement, standing alone, does not suggest outrage, but within the context of the other allegations in the case, the plaintiffs’ have met the threshold to go forward to the next phase. The Laundries will continue to use all available legal means to preserve their rights.”

Gabby’s parents issued a statement through their attorney, Patrick Reilly, saying (in part) that they are “appreciative of [Carroll’s] thorough and well-reasoned decision.”

“This gives them an opportunity to proceed with their claim for the emotional distress caused by the conduct of the Laundries,” the statement says. “Joe and Nichole look forward to discovering the information the Laundries knew about Gabby’s death and her whereabouts, and in particular getting a copy of any correspondence, emails and texts exchanged during the difficult period when Gabby’s whereabouts were unknown. They look forward to going to trial and are confident that ultimately the Laundries will be held accountable.”

Read the ruling below.

[Images via Moab, Utah police body camera videos.]

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