Gabby Petito’s family officially files lawsuit against Moab Police Department
SALT LAKE CITY — Gabby Petito’s family filed a lawsuit against the Moab City Police Department on Thursday, seeking $50 million and claiming police negligence “led to Gabby’s death.”
James W. McConkie, one of the attorneys for the Petito family with Salt Lake City-based Parker and McConkie, said in a statement the purpose of the lawsuit is to demand accountability, create change and honor Gabby’s legacy.
“The epidemic of domestic violence is a silent killer, the sign and symptoms of which often go unrecognized by those not familiar with interpersonal violence. … To combat domestic violence, each of us has to do our part to call out abusers and know how to identify systemic problems that enable abuse, even when that is difficult to do,” he said.
Since Gabby Petito’s encounter with Moab police in August 2021, there has been evidence suggesting one of the responding officers, Eric Pratt, “was a domestic abuser, who has used authority and threats of physical violence to control and intimidate sexual partners,” according to another Petito family attorney, Brian Stewart.
Stewart said they believe the officer was “fundamentally biased” and likely ignored the victim. The attorney claims Pratt was looking for loopholes to get around Utah law and that the Moab Police Department either knew or should have known about Pratt’s history of sexual harassment, and that he was “manifestly unfit and unsafe to be a police officer.”
At the scene of the incident with Petito and Laundrie in Moab, Stewart’s said that Pratt said, “I don’t care if we use the actual letter of the law,” after saying why the domestic assault code protects people.
“Gabby would be alive today if the officers had done their job to protect her and followed the law,” the lawyers continued.
Moab city officials publicly recognized the death of Petito as a tragedy and was sympathetic toward the family, but said police officers were not responsible for the murder. The city said it “will ardently defend” against the lawsuit, and that its police officers acted “with findings, respect and empathy toward Ms. Petito.”
“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,” the Moab police said in a statement Wednesday.
The city said Petito died over two weeks after the Moab police interaction with her and Laundrie, and in a separate state.
Earlier this year, in August, Petito’s family announced plans to file the lawsuit, and said they had initiated the process by giving notice of their intent to Moab, a requirement of Utah law. After the notice, the city had 60 days to respond before the lawsuit could be filed.
Petito, a 22-year-old self-proclaimed travel influencer, who was traveling with her fiancé, was reported missing on Sept. 11, 2021. Her disappearance gripped the nation.
Her body was found on Sept. 19 at the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest almost four weeks after her family last heard from her. The Teton County Coroner’s Office ruled Petito died from blunt force trauma and strangulation.
Gabby Petito’s fiance, Brian Laundrie, with whom she was traveling the country, went missing following the discovery. In a notebook later found near his body at a nature preserve in Sarasota County, Florida, Laundrie admitted to killing her. An autopsy showed Laundrie died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
McConkie said the Utah lawsuit is part of a bigger effort by Petito’s parents to raise awareness of intimate partner violence across the country. The family wants to help victims of domestic violence to know there are resources available and that law enforcement is reliable.
“They hope their efforts to help will save lives and give meaning to the senseless, avoidable and tragic murder of their daughter,” McConkie said.
What is in the actual lawsuit?
The lawsuit, which was filed in Utah’s 7th District Court in Grand County on Thursday, said that the Moab Police Department and individuals within the department negligently hired and failed to train officers and that the negligence of individual officers “caused Gabby’s tragic and untimely death.”
Petito’s family explains the Utah Legislature removes discretion of officers in domestic violence situations — requiring a protective order separating the abuser and victim.
“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,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit, attorneys said, is “a vehicle for systemic change, and a reckoning about how the police enforce (Utah’s) domestic abuse laws.” The specific changes requested in the suit include that:
- Officers should not assert immunity for actions that result in a wrongful death.
- Officers should be trained in and use effective methods when evaluating domestic abuse situations so victims can be protected.
- Police departments should stop hiring and retaining officers with professional misconduct or personal biases that make them unfit to serve.
- The lawsuit says Gabby would still be alive if Moab police officers had followed these steps.
“Gabby did not have to die. … Gabby would still be alive if Officer Pratt had not intentionally coached Gabby and manipulated the investigation to try to find loopholes that would allow him to disregard the mandates of Utah law and his duty to protect Gabby. Defendants’ negligence deprived Gabby of her safety and ultimately her life,” it says.
Read more of KSL TV’s extensive coverage of the investigation here.
Domestic violence resources
Help for people in abusive relationships can be found by contacting:
- Utah Domestic Violence Coalition: Utah’s confidential statewide, 24-hour domestic violence hotline at 1-800-897-LINK (5465)
- YWCA Women in Jeopardy program: 801-537-8600
- Utah’s statewide child abuse and neglect hotline: 1-855-323-DCFS (3237)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
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