Social workers in Pope County cannot be held liable for their failure to intervene and prevent the brutal beating and murder in 2013 of 4-year-old Eric Dean, a highly publicized case that triggered far-reaching reforms to Minnesota's child-protection system.

A state appellate court panel ruled Monday that three child-protection workers with Pope County Human Services are immune from liability in Eric's death because their conduct was not "willful or malicious," even though court records and a state review found they repeatedly failed to investigate reports of abuse concerning the boy or refer the reports to law enforcement. A trustee for Eric's family had sued Pope County and the social workers in 2016, alleging gross and willful negligence in his death.

"The social workers here are entitled to official immunity in the context of this conduct, as there are no allegations that their conduct was willful or malicious," the three-judge appellate panel said in its 24-page decision.

The judges cited the common-law doctrine of immunity, which provides that a public official cannot be held personally liable to an individual for damages unless the official is guilty of a willful or malicious wrong. The purpose of the doctrine is to enable civil servants to perform their duties without fear of being sued, which can interfere with their judgment, the judges noted. Attorneys have argued, for instance, that fear of litigation might compel social workers to wrongly remove children from their homes as a precaution.

Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a child-protection advocacy group, said the ruling may make legal sense, but it has troubling, long-term implications for children who are subjected to maltreatment. "The ruling basically means that counties and states can operate with impunity, that they can implement practices that put children at risk and not be held accountable," he said. "I mean, if this [Dean] case doesn't rise to the level of malfeasance, then no case ever will."

Five years ago, a state mortality panel concluded that Pope County violated state law when its workers failed to investigate or notify law enforcement when Eric was reported to have visible injuries. Teachers, caregivers and family members reported abuse at least 15 times before Eric was killed by his stepmother, Amanda Peltier, in February 2013. Peltier was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison after a jury heard evidence that she repeatedly beat Eric and threw him against a wall, causing a fatal injury.

After the Star Tribune reported on Eric's death, former Gov. Mark Dayton ordered sweeping changes to the state's child-protection system. These included putting the best interests of the child above keeping a family intact, and a requirement that social workers review past abuse reports when considering how to handle a new one. Legislation passed after Eric's death also require child-protection workers to undergo more training and to share abuse reports with police.

The appellate judges noted that Pope County social workers were operating under the guidelines that existed at the time of Eric's death, when counties reviewed each report of maltreatment independently and did not review previous child abuse reports when considering how to respond to a new one. The judges did not dispute that the social workers had failed to report the abuse to police; however, they determined the evidence was insufficient to prove that this failure was a "proximate cause" of Eric's death.

The ruling upholds an earlier determination by a state district court that "there is nothing in the record to suggest cross-reporting to law enforcement would have changed this horrible tragedy."