A novel lawsuit in Florida has been filed by the parents of Gabby Petito against the parents of Brian Laundrie, Chris and Roberta Laundrie. The lawsuit accuses the parents of hiding their knowledge that Brian Laundrie killed their daughter. I am very skeptical over the basis of this lawsuit, which rests on the assumption that, if the parents knew, they had a legal obligation to disclose that knowledge to Gabby Petito’s parents, Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt.
“Christopher Laundrie and Roberta Laundrie exhibited extreme and outrageous conduct which constitutes behavior, under the circumstances, which goes beyond all possible bounds of decency and is regarded as shocking, atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” the lawsuit alleges. “As a direct and proximate result of the willfulness and maliciousness of Christopher Laundrie and Roberta Laundrie, Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt had been caused to suffer pain and suffering, mental anguish, inconvenience, loss of capacity for enjoyment of life experienced in the past and to be experienced in the future.”
Notably, the complaint also alleges that
“In an effort to avoid any contact with Nichole Schmidt, on or about September 10, 2021, Roberta Laundrie blocked Nichole Schmidt on her cellular phone such that neither phone. calls nor texts could be delivered, and she blocked her on Facebook.”
Brian Laundrie reportedly returned to his parents’ home in Florida on Sept. 1 and the Petitos allege that they immediately cut off contact with them. They further allege that they struggled to find the truth about their daughter between August 27, 2021 and September 19, 2021, but received no help from the Petitos. Instead, the complaint states, “[w]hile Gabrielle Petito’s family was suffering, the Laundrie family went on vacation to Fort DeSoto Park on September 6-7, 2021.”
All of that may make a moral case against the Laundrie family, if true, but I do not believe that it makes out a legal case. The question is the duty of the Petitos to share what they knew, even though it would undermine the legal position of their son and (after his death) the family as a whole. The complaint does not clearly establish the legal duty that was breached in failing to come forward.
They insist that the Petitos have a legal obligation to “alleviate” the “mental suffering and anguish by disclosing what they knew” but “repeatedly refused to do so.” In failing to do so, the complaint alleges that they “acted with malice or great indifference to the rights” of Gabby’s parents.
This is different from a situation where the parents knew information that would have prevented a death. Such a case was raised in the famous case of Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, which I teach in my torts class. In the 1974 case, Prosinjit Podder, an Indian Graduate student at Berkeley, fell in love with Tatiana Tarasoff. When she stated that she wanted to date other men, Podder went to counseling at the University Health Service and was treated by psychologist, Dr. Lawrence Moore. When he told Moore that he wanted to get a gun and kill Tarasoff, Moore sent a letter to campus police who interviewed Podder and decided that he was not a risk. Podder then went ahead and murdered Tarasoff.
Justice Mathew O. Tobriner held that “… the confidential character of patient-psychotherapist communications must yield to the extent that disclosure is essential to avert danger to others. The protective privilege ends where the public peril begins.” As a result, the hospital was held liable for the criminal actions of a third party — something that usually (but not always) cuts off proximate causation. It also rejects strong arguments made by doctors that such liability would create a chilling affect on counseling. A large number of patients often express their anger by focusing it on individuals and stating an intent to “kill that guy.” In the vast majority of such cases, the open disclosure is addressed and defused. However, if the patient knows that the doctor will have to tell authorities, such feelings are less likely to be expressed and addressed.
In this case, the parents were not in the position of a psychotherapist. They were the family of the accused. Under this theory, the parents of a suspect would have a legal obligation to incriminate their son or daughter to avoid civil liability from a victim’s family. I know of no case establishing such a duty. Indeed, it would undermine or circumvent the right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment if they could refuse to speak to the police but could be civilly liable for that failure of disclosure to parents or police.
I understand the frustration and anger of the Petito family. Indeed, this lawsuit may be an effort to force the Laundrie family into discovery and depositions to force out what they knew about the murder. However, they first must prevail in an inevitable motion to dismiss. That motion could be an insurmountable barrier given the threshold legal questions over the alleged legal duty.