Parents of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie set for mediation in emotional distress lawsuit

Feb 21, 2024, 2:23 PM

Nichole Schmidt, mother of Gabby Petito, speaks alongside, from left, Tara Petito, Petito's stepmot...

Nichole Schmidt, mother of Gabby Petito, speaks alongside, from left, Tara Petito, Petito's stepmother; Joseph Petito, her father; Richard Stafford, the family's attorney; and Jim Schmidt, her stepfather; during a news conference in September 2021 in Bohemia, New York. Mandatory Credit: John Minchillo/AP via CNN Newsource

(CNN) — The families of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie are set to attend a mediation conference Wednesday, court records show, in an effort to resolve a lawsuit in which Petito’s parents claim the Laundries knew their son killed his fiancée during a cross-country road trip but intentionally withheld that information.

If mediation is unsuccessful, the case is scheduled to go to trial in May.

Wednesday’s conference comes a week after court documents showed Laundrie’s parents acknowledged in depositions that their son told them Petito was “gone” and that he would need a lawyer in a frantic phone call on August 29, 2021, three weeks before Petito’s strangled remains were found in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Christopher and Roberta Laundrie denied being told by their son that he killed Petito, though Roberta Laundrie said the thought “probably went through my mind.”

Petito’s family reported the 22-year-old missing on September 11, 2021, 10 days after Brian Laundrie returned to his parents’ home in North Port, Florida. He vanished soon after, igniting a weekslong manhunt that ended with the discovery of his remains in a Florida nature reserve. A medical examiner determined the 23-year-old man died by suicide, and authorities said they found writings nearby in which he claimed responsibility for Petito’s death.

In the years since, Petito’s family has sought some semblance of justice through the civil court process: A Florida judge previously ruled in favor of Petito’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit against Brian Laundrie’s estate, awarding a largely symbolic $3 million to Petito’s mother as the administrator of her estate.

The latest lawsuit names Christopher and Roberta Laundrie and their attorney, Steven Bertolino, as defendants, claiming the trio’s actions during the search for Petito caused her parents severe emotional distress.

Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt are seeking damages in excess of $30,000, according to their amended complaint filed last November, which claims the Laundries knew not only that their son had killed Petito, but likely also knew the location of her body.

The lawsuit pays particular attention to statements made by the Laundries and their attorney as the search for Petito unfolded, including one issued by Bertolino in which the Laundries expressed “hope that the search for Miss Petito is successful” and that she would be “reunited with her family.”

Three days before the discovery of Petito’s remains, her family sent a letter to Christopher and Roberta Laundrie, the lawsuit says, pleading for information about their daughter’s whereabouts. “Tell us if we are even looking in the right place,” they wrote, per the complaint, which says the letter went unanswered.

Upon discovery of Petito’s remains on September 19, 2021, the Laundries issued another statement, according to the complaint, which said, “The news about Gabby Petito is heartbreaking.”

These statements, the complaint says, amounted to “conduct which was intentional or reckless,” and that the Laundries and Bertolino “knew or should have known that the statements would cause emotional distress.”

For their parts, the defendants have filed for a summary judgment, asking the court to resolve the case now in their favor. Their statements were not intended to cause emotional distress but to “express” their “sincere wishes,” they argue. And because the case was a “public issue” that was receiving widespread news coverage, they argue their statements should be protected by the First Amendment.

Additionally, the defendants argue “silence is not actionable.” Holding them responsible for the “‘act’ of doing nothing” would seriously undermine the right to remain silent.

”Because the collective Defendants had, and have, a constitutional right to remain silent, they cannot be held liable for insisting upon this legal right,” their filings read.

CNN’s Jean Casarez and Elizabeth Wolfe contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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Parents of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie set for mediation in emotional distress lawsuit