Gabby Petito’s family’s $50M lawsuit against cops could force major change – but they will face challenges, experts warn

A $50MILLION lawsuit filed by Gabby Petito’s family against Moab police may bring about dramatic changes to the department – but it could also be tossed out, an attorney has warned.

Assuming it plays out, the final determination can lead to drastic actions against department leadership and officers involved in the August 12, 2021 interaction with Gabby and Brian Laundrie.

The Petito family sued Moab police in a $50million civil lawsuit

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The Petito family sued Moab police in a $50million civil lawsuitCredit: Moab City Police Department
Hysterical Gabby tells officers she's been 'fighting all morning' with Brian Laundrie in chilling body cam footage

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Hysterical Gabby tells officers she’s been ‘fighting all morning’ with Brian Laundrie in chilling body cam footageCredit: AP:Associated Press
An officer was heard on the bodycam footage telling Brian he is a 'victim of domestic assault'

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An officer was heard on the bodycam footage telling Brian he is a ‘victim of domestic assault’Credit: Moab City Police Department

Janeen Smith, an attorney with Turnbull, Holcomb & LeMoine, PC with knowledge of these types of civil cases, told The Sun that the officers are covered by insurance policies.

But if Moab and the police department lose the case, it opens the door for incentivized or mandated changes within the department or administrative actions against the officers.

“While the family cannot force criminal charges against the individual officers, a civil lawsuit can be a great tool to spotlight bad behavior by government employees,” Smith said.

Utah police officers were a visible and memorable part of the Gabby-Brian saga that ultimately ended with Brian’s suicide and his note claiming responsibility for killing his 21-year-old girlfriend.

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At the time, the couple was at the tail end of their cross-country trip when Moab officers responded to calls about a domestic dispute between the two.

Body camera footage of the encounter showed a crying Gabby telling officers that she and Laundrie had been “fighting all morning.”

After listening to both sides for over an hour, one of the officers was heard saying Gabby was the “primary aggressor,” and another officer directly was heard telling Brian he is a “victim of domestic assault.”

They were separated for the night, and no charges were filed.

A couple of weeks later, Gabby was found strangled to death in Grand Teton National Park.

The bombshell lawsuit blames the department’s leadership and responding officers for a series of “wrongful acts and neglect” that ultimately failed to protect Gabby.

In the civil sphere, lawsuits against individual police officers and departments are not uncommon, Smith said.

“While the laws vary state-by-state, this type of case is typically very challenging due to legal technicalities,” she explained.

“Lawsuits against government departments and police officers have a lot of unique procedural requirements.”

The Petito family lawyers had to file a Notice of Claim signaling they will sue before they filed the actual lawsuit, Smith said.

She added: “If these procedural requirements are not followed precisely, this type of case can be dismissed very early on in the legal process.

“I expect the Petito family may face challenges to their lawsuits based on these types of legal technicalities early on.”

‘INDICATORS OF ABUSE’ MISSED

According to the lawsuit, the officers failed to “recognize the obvious indicators of abuse” when they interviewed an almost inconsolable Petito in the back of a squad car.

Had they noticed the apparent indicators, “it would have been clear to them that Gabby was a victim of intimate partner violence and needed immediate protection,” the suit states.

Additionally, the Petitos reference an apparent additional image of Gabby, that has not yet been released publicly, which they claim shows blood smeared know her cheek and left eye, revealing “the violent nature of Brian’s attack.”

“The photo shows that Gabby’s face was grabbed across her nose and mouth, potentially restricting her airway,” claims the suit.

The filing further claims that, when answering questions about her fight with Laundrie, Gabby displayed to officers all the “classic hallmarks of an abused partner” that they apparently did not pick up on.

“[Gabby was] attempting to take the blame for the fight because she had hit Brian first and did not want to be separated from him,” reads the suit.

“Whether for lack of training or refusal to follow their training, the officers did not press further.”

The apparently missed signals were succeeded by a misapplication of Utah state law, according to the Petitos.

After designating Laundrie as the likely victim of the dispute, officer Eric Pratt initially explained to the couple that he was required to charge Gabby and take her to jail, but the pair pleaded for another way to resolve the issue.

Pratt then called Assistant Cheif Palmer seeking guidance on how to best proceed, who responded by advising him to carefully read the state’s assault statute which he Googled and allegedly only read half of.

“Officer Pratt [then] decided – incorrectly – that Utah law only recognizes assault if the perpetrator intended to cause bodily injury,” claims Gabby’s family.

“Based on that incomplete and incorrect understanding of the law, Officer Pratt questioned Gabby about whether she intended to cause Brian bodily injury when she hit him. Gabby said no.”

Ultimately, officers Pratt and Robbins decided to separate the pair for the night and pursue no further action, with Pratt suggesting that if the couple later found each other it “wouldn’t be the officer’s responsibility.”

While she was sitting in the back of the police car, Gabby was reportedly on the phone with her parents, who were demanding that she fly home to “get away from Brian”, offering to pay to fly her flight.

“But upon learning the police were involved, they accepted Gabby’s assurances that she should continue her trip,” says the suit.

As a direct result of the police’s alleged failures, the Petito family said their “daughter was brutally murdered” just over two weeks later.

Citing a series of personal losses to both sets of parents, in addition to the physical and emotional harm suffered by Gabby, the Petitos are seeking $50million in damages from Moab PD.

‘BUNGLED’ CALL

The department has not yet issued a statement regarding the wrongful death lawsuit.

The filing comes several months after an independent review of the police’s fateful encounter with Gabby and Brian found that the officers involved made several mistakes.

Price City, Utah, police Capt. Brandon Ratcliffe, who conducted the review, said the officers failed to cite Petito for domestic violence, misinterpreted Utah’s assault code, failed to take photographs of her injuries, and neglected to contact the 911 caller who reported seeing Laundrie slap Petito, among other issues. 

Those mistakes, however, were not intentional, and it’s impossible to assess what impact they may have had on Gabby’s death, Ratcliffe added.

“The officers did not know what they were doing was wrong at the time and did not make the decision to benefit themselves in any way,” Ratcliffe wrote.

“They both believed at the time they were making the right decision based on the totality of the circumstances that were presented.”

‘AN INSTITUTIONAL FAILURE’

Announcing the suit on Monday, one of the Petitos’ attorneys, James McConkie, said the family has additional evidence in the case which has not yet been unveiled.

But once those findings are, McConkie said it will “clearly show that if the officers had been properly trained and followed the law, Gabby would still be alive today.”

“Failure to follow the law can have deadly consequences, as it did in this case,” McConkie added, pointing out that Moab PD “has been plagued by high turnover, lack of leadership, and dangerous mismanagement for years.

“Despite these chronic problems with protecting victims of domestic violence in their community, the Moab City Police Department has neglected its duty to provide the training and resources its officers need to do their job.

“This is an institutional failure plain and simple.” 

Brian Stewart, one of the lead attorneys on the case, added: “We agree with the findings of the independent investigation that the Moab City police officers failed in their duty to protect Gabby.

“Due to [a] lack of training and access to critical domestic violence resources, the officers failed to properly investigate the reported domestic assault and, thus failed to fully appreciate or respond to Gabby’s life-threatening situation.” 

Mr. Stewart continued: “The Petito family believes that it is important as a society to hold our governmental institutions to account for such failures and to work toward changes to protect victims of domestic abuse and violence and prevent such tragedies in the future.”

COP CONTROVERSY

As previously reported by The Sun, one of the officers involved in the fateful encounter last year, Eric Pratt, previously appeared on a podcast in which he admitted to hating his job and using “loopholes” in the law to help people escape charges.

Pratt, a former police chief who now works patrol for Moab PD, discussed his police career on the Books In Heinessight Podcast in 2019.

During the broadcast, he revealed he quit as Chief of Salina County two years earlier, before going back into the profession despite hating his line of work.

He then quit a second time while working for Moab Police Department – but appears to have returned to law enforcement yet again before being thrown into the spotlight in the Petito case.

Pratt says there were many reasons he became “disillusioned” with police work, explaining in Salina he had to think more about legislation and how politics affected his department.

“When the curtain got lifted and I got to see how everything’s going, why things are the way they are, I started to realize nobody really has the answers, we’re all kind of clueless,” he said.

“The people who we put in place, they’re just like us.

“And so you start to have to do critical thinking. I think there’s a time in every man’s life when he kind of gets to know who he is and has to think critically.

“I’m a conspiracy guy too when it comes to critical thinking. Sometimes the conspiracy is the best, simplest, and most logical answer.

Sometimes the conspiracy is the best, simplest, and most logical answer.

Eric Pratt

“Long story short, at the same time, I started to just kind of think ‘wow, why is this law this way’ because if I go and enforce that law, I’m going to have this impact on this person’s life, and it’s my job to do it.

“Is there another way I can enforce this law that’s lesser or more appropriate to this situation? Or more severe or more appropriate for this situation?”

He admitted: “Some days I felt like a glorified tax collector for the state.

“You know, I grew up in a very poor family, I grew up with parents who couldn’t always register their car on time, two or three months out.

“I used to pull people over for no insurance, and I was supposed to impound their vehicle,” he said, insisting if it was because of financial reasons a $400 ticket and an impound didn’t help.

He went on: “I’d find my own loopholes, perfectly legal and I think very just loopholes.

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“For example, I’d tell the person, hey, this stop is going to take me about 15 to 17 minutes if nothing else arises.

“If you could call an insurance company and get insurance over the phone and get it right now, most people can do that for under $100, and if you can show me proof of it and I can confirm it because this stop is over, I won’t submit the citation and I won’t impound your car and you can drive away.”

If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to thehotline.org.

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