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VENICE, Fla. (WFLA) — The first hearing in the lawsuit filed by Gabby Petito’s family against the parents of Brian Laundrie was held on Wednesday.
Judge Hunter W. Carroll heard arguments from attorneys for both families after Chris and Roberta Laundrie submitted a motion to dismiss the lawsuit that was filed in March by Petito’s parents, Joe Petito and Nichole Schmidt. The judge said he would make a decision within two weeks as to whether or not the case will proceed to a jury trial next year.
Petito and Schmidt filed the lawsuit on the grounds of “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” claiming the Laundries were aware Brian had murdered their daughter and chose not to act. The lawsuit also includes claims that Chris and Roberta sought to help their son flee the country and blocked Schmidt on her phone and Facebook page.
“While Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt were desperately searching for information concerning their daughter, Christopher Laundrie and Roberta Laundrie were keeping the whereabouts of Brian Laundrie secret, and it is believed were making arrangements for him to leave the country,” the suit says.
Steven Bertolino, the attorney representing the Laundries since September after Brian returned from a cross-country road trip without Gabby, has called the allegations in the lawsuit “baseless.” In the argument filed for the motion to dismiss, the Laundries argued their choice to remain silent during Petito’s disappearance “is what most people would and should do.”
Earlier this year, the FBI concluded that Laundrie strangled Petito — his fiancée with whom he had at least one previous domestic incident with — during their cross-country trip and that Laundrie died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in the Carlton Reserve after returning home alone Sept. 1.
Wednesday’s pre-trial hearing, held in Sarasota County Circuit Court in Venice, Florida, marked the first time the Gabby Petito case reached a courtroom.
Here are five things to know ahead of Wednesday’s hearing:
Petito’s family claims to have evidence
The lawsuit includes the allegation that Chris and Roberta Laundrie were told by their son of Petito’s murder “on or about” Aug. 28.
“It is believed, and therefore averred that… Brian Laundrie advised his parents, Christopher Laundrie and Roberta Laundrie, that he had murdered Gabrielle Petito,” the lawsuit states. “On that same date, Christopher Laundrie and Roberta Laundrie spoke with Attorney Steve Bertolino, and sent him a retainer on Sept. 2, 2021.”
What the lawsuit doesn’t include at this stage, however, is any evidence to back up this claim or any of the other allegations listed.
Speaking to WFLA.com in March, Pat Reilly, the Florida attorney representing Petito and Schmidt in the civil suit, suggested their evidence would be revealed as their lawsuit moves forward.
“They’ll have to wait and see,” Reilly told WFLA Now’s JB Biunno when asked about evidence. “If we didn’t believe it was true, we wouldn’t have put them in the complaint.”
Laundries chose to remain silent, speak through attorney
Chris and Roberta Laundrie were never charged by authorities during the FBI’s investigation into Petito’s death.
In October, however, North Port Police spokesperson Josh Taylor told WFLA that NPPD investigators had mistaken Roberta for Brian in September due to a “lack of cooperation from the [Laundrie] family early on” in the investigation.
Bertolino has stated numerous times that his clients cooperated with law enforcement and that their choice to remain silent to the public, including the Petito and Schmidt families, is protected under the U.S. Constitution.
“As I have maintained over the last several months, the Laundries have not publicly commented at my direction, which is their right under the law,” Bertolino said in March. “Assuming everything the Petitos allege in their lawsuit is true, which we deny, this lawsuit does not change the fact that the Laundries had no obligation to speak to law enforcement or any third-party, including the Petito family. This fundamental legal principle renders the Petitos’ claims to be baseless under the law.”
Lawsuit’s ‘wish list’ of witnesses revealed
In May, the lawsuit’s initial witness list was made public, revealing who the plaintiffs are seeking testimony from.
The initial witness list is routine, procedural and far from a definitive list of names that would testify should the lawsuit reach a jury trial, but it does offer a glimpse into the strategy behind the lawsuit:
- Joseph Petito (Gabby Petito’s father)
- Nichole Schmidt (Gabby Petito’s mother)
- Tara Petito (Gabby Petito’s stepmother)
- James Schmidt (Gabby Petito’s stepfather)
- Christopher Laundrie (Brian Laundrie’s father)
- Roberta Laundrie (Brian Laundrie’s mother)
- Representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Names not specified)
- Representatives of the North Port Police Department (Names not specified)
“It’s a wish list,” Laundrie attorney Steven Bertolino said. “I’m sure [Petito and Schmidt attorney Pat Reilly] put every party on that list that [he] believes he needs testimony from to prove his case.”
Jury trial is not guaranteed
Judge Carroll has scheduled a jury trial for August 2023, however, that doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to happen.
Matthew Luka, the Florida attorney for the Laundries, has filed two motions to dismiss the lawsuit. The second motion was filed after Reilly resubmitted an altered version of the suit to correct what Judge Carroll noted to be a “procedural deficiency.”
“The amended complaint did not have any new facts or cite any law that would support the Petito’s legally baseless claim. We are confident our current motion to dismiss the amended complaint will be granted,” Bertolino told WFLA.com.
Wednesday’s hearing on the motion to dismiss was scheduled to last for one hour with enough time to hear arguments from both sides. Luka is expected to make arguments for the Laundries while Reilly is expected to counter on behalf of Petito and Schmidt. Bertolino, who is not licensed to practice law in Florida, appeared virtually from New York.
Petito and Schmidt attended the hearing. Chris and Roberta Laundrie did not.