Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and the Gabby Petito Case


gabbi-300x168Many folks have been following the developments in the Petito case and with the Order from the Court saying that the “Burn After Reading” letter is discoverable, the question is; is there enough here for a civil jury to consider awarding a judgment against the Laundrie parents? 

First let’s recap what has happened so far:

  1. Brian Laundrie confessed to killing his fiance by strangulation.
  2. He then went into the wilderness and shot himself with a confession.
  3. Also on his person at his time of death was an undated letter from his Mother expressing the depths of her love for him and containing a section saying that she would bake a cake with a file in it if he went to jail and;
  4. She would bring a shovel and trash bags if he needed to bury a body.
  5. Mrs. Laundrie claims the letter was written long before the ill fated trip for the van life couple began.
  6. A Judge has recently ruled that the letter is discoverable but has not ruled whether the jury would be able to consider it.
  7. The Laundrie Family has filed another Motion to throw the case out.

Let’s get into the details of the civil case. The civil lawsuit against the Laundrie parents is for emotional distress. In Florida, as in Georgia, there can be Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress and they differ drastically. 

The Petito Family cannot proceed under a negligent infliction theory of recovery because that requires an actual physical injury to accompany the negligent behavior. The rule exists to keep everyone that witnesses a shooting or a car crash from suing the wrongdoer and claiming they were harmed. Our Courts put a requirement in that you actually have to be physically impacted if it is only NEGLIGENT infliction. 

The Petito Family is instead arguing that the Laundrie Family and their Lawyer INTENTIONALLY inflicted emotional distress when they issued a statement hoping for the return of the young lady and by refusing to have any communication with the Petito Family. In Florida, to prove your case for Intentional Infliction, you must meet the following requirements.

“To state a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a complaint must allege four elements: (1) deliberate or reckless infliction of mental suffering; (2) outrageous conduct; (3) the conduct caused the emotional distress; and (4) the distress was severe.” Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Steadman, 968 So. 2d 592, 594 (Fla. 2d DCA 2007)

What is alleged in the Complaint and the amended Complaint are some vague allegations that;

  1. Brian confessed to the murder to his parents
  2. The Laundries went and hired a lawyer
  3. The Laundries blocked the Petitos on their cellphone and Facebook
  4. The Laundries’ attorney made a public statement hoping for her to be reunited with her parents.
  5. The Laundries refused to speak with law enforcement or the Petitos while the search was ongoing.

As further background, remember that Brian’s Estate already conceded a $3,000,000 wrongful death judgment for what he did. This is solely now about his parents.

Herein lies the problem; for the sake of the Motion, the Judge will have to assume that the Family knew about the murder, but after that, it’s hard to argue the behavior is outrageous. It is unfortunate, tragic and perhaps total silence without the attorney statement would have been better, but most people are not in the PR business. It is entirely possible that the Mother and Father figured that Brian may have killed Gabby, but so long as they are not actively taking outrageous steps to hurt the Petitos, there is just no civil lawsuit available. It’s a lousy thing to do and maybe they should have thrown Brian under the bus, but its not outrageous.

Turning to the Burn After Reading letter, where does it fit in? The Mother says she gave it to him well before the trip. The Plaintiffs think otherwise. Here are the contents:

“I just want you to remember I will always love you, and I know you will always love me. You are my boy. Nothing can make me stop loving you, nothing will or could ever divide us no matter what we do, or where we go or what we say – we will always love each other. If you’re in jail, I will bake a cake with a file in it. If you need to dispose of a body, I will show up with a shovel and garbage bags. If you fly to the moon, I will be watching the skies for your re-entry. If you say you hate my guts, I’ll get new guts.

“Remember that love is a verb, not a noun. It’s not a thing, it’s not words, it is actions. Watch people’s actions to know if they love you – not their words. ‘Therefore I am certain that neither death nor life, nor angels nor the ruling spirits, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers from above nor powers from below, nothing in the entire create world can separate our love.’ Neither hostile powers nor messengers of heaven nor monarchs of earth. Nothing has the power to separate us…’ – Romans 8:39 (extended version!).

“(Nothing can separate us: not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not threats, not even sin, not the thinkable or unthinkable can get between us.) ~ Not time. Not miles and miles and miles. ~”


Here is the text of the Laundries’ attorney’s statement;

“It is our understanding that a search has been organized for Miss Petito in or near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming,” the Laundrie family said in a statement released through Bertolino during the missing person case. “On behalf of the Laundrie family, it is our hope that the search for Miss Petito is successful and that Miss Petito is reunited with her family.”

Recently the Defense had filed a Motion for Protective Order to keep the letter out of the Petito’s family hands and the Judge denied the Order. The Judge still has not ruled on whether the letter will be admissible if the case goes to trial.

The Judge will be faced with an interesting dilemma. Should the jury get to consider the letter? It would be relevant to prove that the Mother knew about the murder before they had the lawyer issue the statement. The jury should be able to consider it for that purpose. BUT it should not be considered as evidence of outrageous behavior. The letter was not given to anyone but the son. It was never shown to the Plaintiffs and cannot have been intended to create harm.

It leads to an interesting dilemma for the Defense. Do you admit that the son told you about the murder before the press statement, thereby making the letter arguably irrelevant. It is no longer needed to prove that she knew, so what further purpose does it serve other than to inflame the jury.

What Happens Next?

The Judge has set a trial date for 2024 and the Court will decide in the meantime whether to throw the whole case out on the recent Motion. If the case is not thrown out, that may go up on Appeal. If the decision to allow trial is made then, the issue of whether and how the letter will be considered by the jury will be considered.

A tragic story all around but a likely overreach by the lawyer.


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