A court-appointed guardian cannot be held liable for failing to intervene and alert family members after a 77-year-old woman with dementia was sexually assaulted by a male caregiver, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled this week.

The legal action arose from a publicized case that drew attention to violent crimes in Minnesota's senior care facilities. The appellate panel ruled Monday that a guardian has broad immunity under Minnesota law from claims of negligence, even when the guardian has failed to perform duties of care.

Family members of the victim, Jean Krause, allege that the guardian knew of the sexual assault but never told them. As a result, they did not move her to a different senior home or seek treatment for the trauma she suffered. Relatives also said the assault coincided with Krause's decline in health and likely contributed to her death four months later, in September 2016.

"We hold that the plain language of [state law] grants a guardian immunity from liability for negligence in the performance of the guardian's duty to provide for the care, comfort and maintenance needs of the person subject to guardianship," the three-judge appellate panel said in its 19-page decision.

The judges cited a single sentence that was added to Minnesota's guardianship law more than four decades ago. The law lays out the power and duties of guardians and then asserts that guardians who fail to perform these duties can be removed from their position but that they "shall have no personal or monetary liability" for negligence. That was the argument of attorneys for the court-appointed guardian, Naree Weaver. Monday's ruling upholds a lower court's dismissal of negligence claims against Weaver.

Suzanne Scheller, an elder law attorney from Champlin who represents Krause's family, described the ruling as "flat-out dangerous" for the estimated 27,000 adults across the state who live under the care of guardians, a position that often gives them broad powers over the people they are assigned to protect. She said the ruling is based on an overly narrow interpretation of state law, and that means families have no recourse to hold guardians accountable when they fail to provide basic care — other than to remove them through often lengthy and adversarial court proceedings.

"[The ruling] has broad implications and goes against good public policy," Scheller said. "Why are we saying that in order to protect our most vulnerable citizens, we should grant blanket immunity for those who are court authorized to have power over them? It would seem that we should do the exact opposite."

The guardian's attorney, John Valen, said in an email that his client was "greatly relieved" the prolonged case was over after she had tried to help Krause, who was her longtime friend and neighbor.

"In this case, it confirmed the old saw that 'no good deed goes unpunished,' " Valen said. "[The guardian] did her best to carry out what she believed to be the wishes of her good friend, only to be sued and subjected to a great deal of anxiety."

Much of the case centered on the Legislature's intent in 1981 when it added the immunity provision to the guardianship law. Attorneys for Krause's family argued that the provision only applies when guardians fail to apply for government benefits for their "wards," or people under their care. The appellate judges disagreed.

The case stems from a violent assault that occurred more than six years ago at the Heritage House assisted-living complex in Pequot Lakes.

On May 8, 2016, Krause, a former nurse, was found curled up in a fetal position, naked below her waist, in her bed at Heritage House. A few feet away, a male nurse's aide who worked at the home stood sweating and breathing heavily, with his jeans and underwear at his knees, according to an eyewitness account described in a criminal complaint. When a female aide saw the aide, he began awkwardly trying to pull up his pants and underwear, according to court documents.

Later, investigators discovered that crucial pieces of evidence — including Krause's nightgown and mattress pad — had been placed in the facility's washing machine, possibly by the male aide.

The aide, David DeLong, pleaded guilty to one count of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, which involves force or coercion. He was sentenced to one year in jail and 10 years' probation.

Relatives of the victim said they were never told of the assault by the woman who had been appointed by the court as Krause's emergency guardian. Krause couldn't describe what had happened to her because she suffered from advanced Alzheimer's disease and was unable to speak. Family members did not learn of the attack until 14 months afterward, when the Crow Wing County Attorney's Office informed her son, Robert Krause, 64, of Chickamaw Beach, Minn.

Speaking from his home Tuesday, Robert Krause said he was "gravely disappointed" by the ruling and its implications for vulnerable seniors across the state who are too frail to care for themselves. Had he known about the assault, he would have immediately moved his mother to a different facility and arranged sexual assault counseling for her trauma. Instead, she spent the last few months of her life in the same room and the same bed where she had been attacked, he said.

Krause said his mother never received services for trauma related to the sexual assault and her health quickly deteriorated at the senior home.

"Can you imagine being trapped in that body, and you've been so badly violated, and you can't tell anyone about it — or ask for help?" Krause said, his voice shaking with emotion. "In a situation like that, the guardian has at least a moral obligation to advocate for their ward and make sure they are getting the care they need."

Scheller, the attorney representing the family, said she intends to petition the state Supreme Court to review the decision.