The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday reinstated a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the heirs of a boy whose murder sparked major child protection reforms in Minnesota.
The lawsuit claims Pope County and three child protection workers were negligent in Eric Dean's murder.
The state Supreme Court reinstated the lawsuit, saying the district court should determine whether the county and the social workers are liable for Eric's death for failing to notify law enforcement about reports of abuse as required by state's Reporting of Maltreatment of Minors Act.
Eric, 4, who lived in Starbuck, died in Feburary 2013 at the hands of his father's girlfriend after at least seven reports of suspected child abuse from different sources.
The district court dimissed the case, saying that the social workers were immune from liability in the screening and handling of suspected child abuse cases. The district court also concluded that the evidence was insufficient that the failure to report suspected abuse to law enforcement led to Eric's death.
The court of appeals affirmed. But the Supreme Court disagreed in a unanimous ruling written by Justice Paul Thissen.
The 36-page decision found that immunity didn't apply to the social workers. The court also said the significance of a a failure to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement is something that should be weighed by the district court.
The ruling returned the case to the lower court for further proceedings, including a possible trial.
According to Star Tribune reporting, at least 15 child protection reports had been made on Eric's behalf by the time his stepmother murdered him by throwing him across a room, puncturing his intestine.
Before that, Eric had been reported for a broken arm, bruises, scratch marks and bites over his body. Pope County's child protective agency investigated only one of the 15 abuse reports and found no maltreatment. Nine of those reports were screened out, meaning child protection took no action.
The Star Tribune's report on the case in September 2014 prompted Gov. Mark Dayton to form a child protection task force, which urged more than 100 reforms to completely overhaul the system. Those reforms became law in May 2015 and included more response and more investigations to abuse reports, and more funding and workers for the child protection system.
Eric's stepmother Amanda Peltier was convicted of first-degree murder in 2014.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747