A circuit court judge in Florida denied a request by Brian Laundrie's parents to dismiss a civil lawsuit filed by Gabby Petito's parents alleging the other couple knew their son had killed his 22-year-old fiancee before the Long Island woman was reported missing.
Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Hunter W. Carroll said in releasing his ruling Thursday that the Petito family had a valid claim against the Laundries and their suit seeking action over "intentional infliction of emotional distress" could proceed.
"Today's ruling does not determine what happened to Gabby Petito. It determines only whether Gabby Petito's parents stated a valid claim against Brian Laundrie's parents," Carroll wrote. He said he reached the decision "because the Laundries' statement by their attorney in the context of the unique facts of this case is objectively outrageous."
According to court documents, the Laundries allegedly knew since around Aug. 28 that Petito was dead -- because their son had told them. That was two weeks before the young woman was reported missing by her own mother, Nichole Schmidt, who couldn't reach her or Brian Laundrie's parents.
Get DFW local news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC DFW newsletters.
Schmidt filed the missing person report on Sept. 11. Brian Laundrie disappeared two days later and wasn't seen alive -- at least according to any accounts that have been made public -- again.
Petito's family claims it was the Laundries' silence that destroyed them. For their part, the Laundries have said they weren't responsive to Petito's family, even in the wake of desperate texts and other pleas for help finding her, because their right to silence was protected by the First, Fifth and Sixth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Carroll said the Laundries' silence alone isn't what led to his ruling in favor of the other family. They had no legal obligation to speak, he said, but eventually, they did. And it was that statement, released through their attorney, Steve Bertolino, that Carroll found "outrageous under the facts of this case."
That statement, in particular, was released on Sept. 14, three days after Petito was reported missing and a day after Brian Laundrie vanished.
"On behalf of the Laundrie family it is our hope that the search for Miss Petito is
successful and that Miss Petito is re-united with her family," the statement Bertolino shared said.
The Laundries contended in oral arguments that Bertolino had no prior knowledge of Petito's death or where her body might be located, Carroll wrote. He called that position "meritless" for three reasons: 1) The case is about his clients' actions or inactions, not his; 2) It's reasonable that Bertolino knew the same information the Laundries did; and 3) The way the statement was phrased indicated the Laundries agreed to it.
The Petito family attorneys say those factors gave the missing woman's family false hope -- and that the Laundries knew their statement was false before it came out. It wasn't the statement itself that was problematic, Carroll said.
"When juxtaposed with the other conduct in the case, though, the outrageous threshold is passed," he wrote in his decision.
Carroll acknowledged the Laundries had made additional arguments for dismissing the civil case in other legal filings but said none were sufficient to change his mind about allowing the case to move forward -- and thus said no further details are warranted.
The Petito/Laundrie case dominated national headlines as the story developed -- and the mystery turned increasingly layered -- last fall. But once Brian Laundrie's remains were found in October, the public intensity around the case appeared to wane.
The case was thrown back into the spotlight late last week when Bertolino revealed the contents that had been salvaged from Brian Laundrie's notebook, which was recovered with his bones in the swampy nature preserve. It contained a confession to killing Petito, though ignited more questions than answers on the circumstances of her death.
Earlier this week, the Petito family attorney, Pat Reilly, said Bertolino had clearly shared "cherry-picked" excerpts from Brian Laundrie's notebook. He said another confession -- with a different scenario -- was expected to emerge in the "near future."
The Laundrie family has consistently denied any wrongdoing in Petito's case.