Most states in the U.S. have "parental responsibility laws" on the books. Under these statutes, parents or legal guardians can be held responsible for damages their minor children cause. The specifics of a parent/guardian's liability -- and the potential extent of that liability from a financial standpoint -- depends on the language of each state's law. In some jurisdictions, parents are only liable when their child acts intentionally or maliciously, while in other states liability might extend to an accident caused by the minor. (Learn more about the basics of parental responsibility laws.)
This article addresses the key points of Nebraska's parental responsibility law.
Nebraska's Parental Responsibility Law can be found at Nebraska Revised Statutes section 43-801.
Parents and guardians can only be held accountable for the actions of their minor children (meaning a child who has not reached the age of majority). Nebraska sets the age of majority at 18, so the law discussed below only applies when a child is under the age of 18.
Under Nebraska Revised Statutes section 43-801, parents are jointly and severally liable when a minor child in their custody willfully and intentionally causes personal injury or destroys property (real or personal). "Jointly and severally" simply means the damaged party can collect the amount of damages from the parent and minor together -- or the entire sum of damages from the parent or the minor individually.
"Willful" is a legal term of art. Uusally, it means that the person intended the action taken, and may have also intended the result of that action. For example, if a child intends to throw a baseball to a friend, but instead, accidentally throws too high and breaks a window, that action would not be considered "willful." However, if a child aims and throws a baseball at a window -- with the intent to break it -- that action would be considered "willful."
With regard to personal injuries, Nebraska Revised Statutes section 43-801 limits recovery to the extent of hospital and medical expenses, up to $1,000. In other words, parental liability is limited to “actual damages.” "Actual damages" can be defined as all quantifiable losses stemming from the minor's actions. It is important to note that "actual damages" do not include non-economic losses such as pain and suffering. These types of damages often add up in a typical civil lawsuit over serious injuries; however, under section 43-801 parents can't be sued for non-economic damages. And remember that liability is also capped at $1,000.
There is no limit, under section 43-801, on the amount of recovery for property damage.
Parents and guardians can be responsible for their minor's actions even in cases where Nebraska's Parental Responsibility Laws do not apply. Under a non-statutory set of legal principles known as the "common law," parents may have a duty to exercise reasonable care to monitor and control their minor child in certain situations, so as to prevent harm to others.
That duty is not universal, however. It typically only extends to parents who know their child has a propensity to act recklessly or carelessly. In that scenario, a parent may be under a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent that child from causing foreseeable harm to others.
For example, imagine a parent knows his or her child is an inattentive driver who constantly talks or texts on the cell phone while driving. Imagine further that, in spite of this knowledge, the parent does nothing to curb his or her child's careless and reckless behavior. If that child ends up causing an accident because he was talking or texting on the phone, the parent could be considered negligent for not doing something to control the child's behavior. Learn more about Negligence, the Legal Duty of Care, and Fault for an Accident.