Minnesota Supreme Court orders new proceedings to determine if Pope County, three workers liable in 2013 child abuse death
The Minnesota Supreme Court has overturned the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling that upheld a lower court finding that Pope County and its child protection workers are immune from liability in the 2013 child abuse death of 4-year-old Eric Parker Dean. A physician, day care provider and teacher had reported suspected maltreatment of the youth prior to his death. The girlfriend of Eric Dean's father was convicted of murder while committing child abuse and is serving a life sentence.
ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Supreme Court has overturned a lower court ruling that found Pope County and its child protection workers are immune from liability in the 2013 child abuse death of 4-year-old Eric Parker Dean and ordered new proceedings in the wrongful death lawsuit brought in 2016.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals in December 2019 had affirmed the Pope County District Court's partial finding one year earlier of immunity from liability. The high court ruling issued Wednesday, Nov. 10, reverses that and orders new proceedings at the district court level in the lawsuit that alleged negligence by the county and the three workers.
Dean died Feb. 27, 2013, of internal injuries he suffered days earlier after being tossed against a wall. Amanda Lea Peltier, 40, 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 Supreme Court wrote in its order that the District Court was incorrect in granting immunity to the county under Minnesota statute and that the court should not have granted summary judgment in favor of the county and the workers on the claim that the failure to cross-report suspected child abuse to local law enforcement was the "proximate cause of the child's death," calling that claim a "genuine issue of material fact" generally decided by a jury.
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. Child protection workers in Pope County also received reports of suspected abuse in the months prior to his death from a day care 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 child protection workers — Kelly Lurken-Tvrdik; Amy Beckius and Mary Schley — 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 child protection 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 child protection 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.
County child protection 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.
The Supreme Court agreed in March 2020 to review the case.