SAINT PAUL — The Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld a Pope County District Court finding that Pope County and its social workers are immune from liability in the death of 4-year-old Eric Parker Dean. The ruling issued Monday affirms the district court’s partial finding in a lawsuit alleging negligence by the county and three social workers.
Dean died Feb. 27, 2013, of internal injuries he suffered days earlier after being tossed against a wall. Amanda Lea Peltier, 38, is serving a life sentence in the boy's death. She was convicted in 2014 of first-degree murder while committing child abuse. Peltier was the live-in girlfriend of Eric Dean’s father. She was caring for a blended family of six children when she is alleged to have “launched” the child into a wall, according to testimony in her trial.
The first report of suspected maltreatment against Dean was brought to the Pope County Human Service Department in July 2011. A physician treating him reported that the twisted fracture he treated in the then 2-year-old boy’s broken arm could have been the result of abuse, rather than a fall down the stairs as Peltier said. Social workers in Pope County also received reports of suspected abuse in the months prior to his death from a daycare provider and a school teacher who assisted him with a speech difficulty. They reported bite marks, bruising and other injuries.
The lawsuit against Pope County and the social workers was brought in 2016 by William Jepsen, a trustee for Eric Dean’s heirs and next of kin. The lawsuit alleged negligence on the part of the social workers and claimed that a state statute for the Reporting of Maltreatment of Minors Act takes away the immunity they would otherwise enjoy as public officials.
The lawsuit also alleged that the failure of the social workers to cross-report the abuse to law enforcement — which is required by the Reporting of Maltreatment of Minors Act — was a “proximate cause of the child’s death.” A thorough investigation by law enforcement could have revealed abuse against the child prior to his death, the lawsuit argues.
Both parties in the lawsuit agreed to the facts of the case, which included a finding that there had been “multiple” reports of abuse.
Social workers investigated some of the reports and conducted “family assessments” after concluding the reports did not meet child-maltreatment criteria, according to information in the court of appeals decision. They offered assistance to the family and conducted at least one unannounced visit to the home to speak with the father and Peltier.
In its ruling, the court of appeals noted that a public official is entitled to immunity when exercising his or her judgment or discretion unless the official “is guilty of a willful or malicious wrong.” There were no allegations of willful or malicious acts by the social workers, the court of appeals stated.
The court of appeals stated that the state statute concerning the Reporting of Maltreatment of Minors Act does not take this immunity away.
The court of appeals also affirmed the district court determination that there was no evidence to support the allegation that the failure to bring the reports of abuse to the attention of law enforcement was a proximate cause of the child’s death.
While the failure to cross-report the child maltreatment reports to law enforcement violated state statute, this was not the proximate cause of Eric Dean’s death, the district court found.
“It was undisputed that local law enforcement had a policy of not independently investigating or assessing any child-abuse allegations, instead leaving the investigation to PCHS (Pope County Human Services). Thus, the district court reasoned, the failure to report to law enforcement could not have been the proximate cause of Eric’s death,” stated the court of appeals.