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Laundrie family lawyer asserts ‘absolute immunity’ from suit brought by Gabby Petito’s parents, argues ‘expression of hope and prayer was not reckless’

Steve Bertolino

Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie (L) are seen inside a Whole Foods grocery store in Wyoming on Aug. 27, 2021. The recordings are believed to be the last of Gabby Petito alive; Steve Bertolino (R) pictured during a previous appearance on the Law&Crime Network.

A prominent attorney filed a motion this week to dismiss the civil claims Gabby Petito’s parents brought against him in a Florida lawsuit. The case alleges that Steven Bertolino’s representation of Brian Laundrie’s parents contributed to emotional distress that Gabby Petito’s parents experienced while their daughter was still missing.

Plaintiffs Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt previously argued in litigation that Brian Laundrie’s parents Christopher and Roberta Laundrie already knew that Gabby Petito was dead when issuing a statement through Bertolino wishing for the then-missing 22-year-old woman to be reunited with her parents. The civil complaint was eventually amended to include Bertolino based on his involvement in the release of the statement.

Lawyers for Bertolino filed the motion to dismiss Monday before 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Danielle Brewer, saying that it was “wholly conclusory” and without basis of Petito’s parents to claim that the attorney already knew Petito had been murdered when making the statement offering hope and prayers.

“It is our understanding that a search has been organized for Miss Petito in or near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming,” said Bertolino, in the Sept. 14, 2021 Laundrie family statement at issue. “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.”

The statement was made as Petito’s missing person case made national headlines. The public learned that Petito vanished while on a cross-country van trip with Laundrie, 23, and that police in Moab, Utah received a domestic violence call prior to her disappearance.

Authorities have determined Laundrie went on to strangle Petito to death, abandoning her corpse in the wilderness of Wyoming as he drove back to his parents’ home in Florida. After briefly staying at the residence, Laundrie went to a local park where he shot himself in the head. In his suicide note, Laundrie claimed that he killed Petito after she became badly injured while the two were attempting to return to their van on a freezing cold night.

“I ended her life. I thought it was merciful, that it is what she wanted, but I see now all the mistakes I made,” Laundrie said in the note.

Gabby Petito’s parents alleged that Brian Laundrie’s family knew a lot more than they let on and that they had that knowledge when making an “insensitive, cold-hearted and outrageous” statement hoping for Petito’s safe return. Petito’s parents said the statement represented proof that the defendants, including Bertolino, intentionally inflicted emotional distress.

“For the Laundries and Steven Bertolino to express their ‘hope’ that Gabrielle Petito was located and reunited with their family, at a time when they knew she had been murdered by Brian Laundrie was beyond outrageous,” the plaintiffs asserted.

From the perspective of Bertolino’s lawyers, Petito’s parents are suing on the theory that the statement caused emotional distress by falsely leading them to believe Gabby might still be alive.

“In the instant litigation, Plaintiffs allege they suffered emotional distress due to their now mistaken belief that their daughter may still be alive, or was still alive between September 14, 2021, and September 19, 2021,” the motion said. “Implicitly, Plaintiffs claim they would not have suffered this emotional distress had they been affirmatively told on September 14, 2021, that their daughter had been murdered by Brian Laundrie and that her remains could be found at a specific location in Wyoming.”

The defendant’s motion also stated that the Laundries are in the “difficult situation” of being sued both for things they said and didn’t say.

“[I]t is important to note both the Laundries and Mr. Bertolino are being sued for statements made and not made,” the motion said, emphasis as it appeared in the filing. “Such highlights the difficult situation faces by individuals like the Laundries who (in the Second Amended Complaint) are being portrayed as callous and cruel for both not responding and for the words they chose to use when responding.”

The Laundries clearly had “a legal right to ‘say something’ about the events that were unfolding around them,” the filing said.

“They are the ‘parents of the murderer,’ burdened with the heavy cloak of scorn and shame, irrespective of anything they may have done or anything they may have known or not known,” the motion continued.

Crucially, Bertolino’s representation argued, the statement the lawyer issued was made on behalf of his client and is, therefore, shielded by “absolute immunity” afforded to him through the litigation privilege.

“Mr. Bertolino’s comments on behalf of the Laundrie family” cannot give rise to a lawsuit, the lawyers said, “because they were made in connection with [Bertolino’s] representation of the Laundrie family.”

Bertolino’s lawyers emphasized in closing that an attorney simply cannot be sued for making a hopeful statement—during the course of representing a client—about the safe return of a missing person.

“The ‘four corners’ of the Second Amended Complaint do not establish a viable cause of action against Mr. Bertolino under Florida law. The purported conduct at issue is not outrageous,” the motion said. “The statements at issue were benign on their face and not made with any intent to cause the Plaintiffs harm. The expression of hope and prayer was not reckless.”

“As the Laundries’ attorney, Mr. Bertolino acted in a privileged context and those actions were performed in a legally permissible way,” the motion ended.

The court docket indicates that a jury trial date is currently set for Aug. 14.

Read the 19-page motion to dismiss here.

Alberto Luperon contributed to this report.

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.