A Washington appeals court has ruled in favor of the state in a lawsuit from a Wenatchee father who claims his son improperly died in his mother’s custody.

Ian Atkerson says state Child Protective Services conducted a “negligent investigation” in failing to remove the 2-year-old from the mother's custody.

The appeals court ruled the agency and staff is protected from liability because their acts did not constitute gross negligence.

Atkerson’s son, Rustin, died June 2017 in his mother’s custody of a head injury. Medical examiners performed the autopsy, determining the injury was caused by blunt force and was classified as a homicide.

Previous injuries to Rustin had been reported by medical providers and Atkerson to the state Department of Children Youth, and Families, which oversees Child Protective Services, but no action was taken.

The Chelan County sheriff’s office investigated the child's death and the prosecutor’s office charged the mother, Elaine A. Hurd. with manslaughter in the second degree and criminal mistreatment in the fourth degree.

Hurd pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of criminal mistreatment in the second degree and was sentenced to 12 months of confinement.

Deputies determined that Rustin had died while in the custody of Hurd's boyfriend, Steven Rowe. Rowe was arrested for assault of a child in the first degree, but charges were not formalized.

In Atkerson’s lawsuit in Chelan County, the state Department of Children Youth, and Families filed a motion for summary judgement, asking for the charges to be dropped.

The department brought an expert witness, retired Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kitty-Ann Van Doorninck. Atkerson brought a licensed independent clinical social worker.

In the motion for summary judgement, the state claimed the Department of Children Youth, and Families and its employees were insulated from liability unless their acts constitute gross negligence.

The state argued that the case should be dismissed because Atkerson could not prove the department's actions were “grossly negligent.”

The Chelan County Superior Court struck down the opinion of the retired judge because “the danger of the opinion’s unfair prejudice substantially outweighed its probative value.”

More importantly, The Court denied the Department of Children Youth, and Families summary judgment motion after concluding that the law's gross negligence standard did not apply. The Court blamed the agency for failing to hold a hearing to determine if it was safe for Hurd to have custody of the child.

The Washington Appeals Court III in Spokane reversed those decisions. It concluded that the gross negligence standard applies, even without a hearing on Hurd's custody.

The appeals court also found that Chelan County Superior Court erred by striking the opinion of the state's expert.

The higher bench returned the case to Chelan County Superior Court, where the state can once again file for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

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