A Florida judge is allowing the civil lawsuit filed against the parents of Gabrielle "Gabby" Petito’s ex-fiance and suspected killer Brian Laundrie to proceed, citing an earlier statement made by the Laundrie family attorney as grounds for their legal claims.
In an order released Thursday morning, Sarasota County Circuit Court Judge Hunter W. Carroll sided with Petito’s parents and set a deadline of July 15 for the Laundries to provide a written answer to the complaint.
“Because the Laundries’ statement by their attorney in the context of the unique facts of this case is objectively outrageous, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs have stated causes of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress against the Laundries,” Carroll wrote. “The Court denies the Laundries’ motion to dismiss.”
Petito’s parents — Nichole Schmidt and Joseph Petito — filed suit in Sarasota County, Florida, in March against Roberta and Christopher Laundrie. Petito last communicated with her parents in late August 2021, and after weeks of a nationwide search, her body was found Sept. 19 in a national forest in Wyoming where she and Brian Laundrie had stopped while on a cross-country road trip. He later died by suicide.
Petito’s parents said in their filing that the Laundrie parents knew their daughter was already dead, knew the location of her body and tried to help him flee the country as they frantically searched for her in early September 2021, but refused to provide the information, which they summarized as conduct that was “atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”
Patrick J. Reilly, the Venice, Florida-based attorney for Petito’s parents, said during oral arguments on the motion last week that Laundrie family attorney Steven Bertolino, of East Islip, put out a false statement to the news media when the parents knew Petito was dead. Bertolino, in a statement he released Sept. 14, 2021, had said: “On behalf of the Laundrie family, it is our hope that the search for Ms. Petito is successful and that Ms. Petito is reunited with her family.”
Reilly, during oral arguments, told the judge: “The only reason Mr. Bertolino isn’t a defendant in this action is because he’s not a citizen of the state of Florida.”
Laundrie attorney P. Matthew Luka, of Tampa, asked the judge to dismiss the suit, calling it “not legally sustainable.” During oral arguments on the motion, Luka argued the Laundries had a constitutional right to remain silent.
But the judge, in his written ruling, said the statement issued by Bertolino last September on behalf of the Laundries had negated that argument.
"Had the Laundries truly stayed silent, the Court would have granted the motion to dismiss in the Laundries’ favor. But they did not stay silent," the judge ruled.
Luka and Bertolino on Thursday issued a statement reading: "Chris and Roberta Laundrie, and myself, are disappointed with Judge Carroll’s decision to deny the motion and allow this lawsuit to proceed ... The Laundries will continue to use all available legal means to preserve their rights."
Reilly in a statement said: "Joe Petito and Nichole Schmidt, the parents of Gabby Petito, are appreciative of the thorough and well-reasoned decision of Judge Hunter W Carroll which denied the motion of Christopher Laundrie and Roberta Laundrie to dismiss the complaint filed against them."
Reilly's statement added: "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."
Petito died from blunt-force injuries to the head and neck and manual strangulation, the medical examiner found. Laundrie’s body was found last October in a Florida nature reserve where authorities said he fatally shot himself.
The FBI has said Laundrie took “responsibility” for Petito’s death in a notebook found near his body. In excerpts of the notebook released last week, Laundrie admitted killing Petito, writing: “I ended her life.”
A jury trial in the civil lawsuit is scheduled for next year.