Pet Owners Aim to Win More Money in Malpractice Lawsuits

He was considered a member of the family. But three years ago, the De La Garza family's pet rottweiler Grizzley was accidentally put to sleep by an Illinois veterinarian.

The family had boarded Grizzley at the vet while they went on vacation. The clinic mistook their dog for another unruly one that had bitten someone and was to be euthanized.

"They were very sympathetic," said Zulema De La Garza. "They said it was a mistake. They did apologize."

The vet clinic even offered to help the family get another dog — but the De La Garzas refused.

"There’s no way you can replace a dog," she said.

Instead, the De La Garzas hired an attorney, settling with the clinic for an undisclosed amount of money.

They are part of a controversial movement afoot in the animal world to help pet owners win larger damages in malpractice lawsuits.

It’s paying off. In Tennessee, people can now sue for up to $4,000 for the wrongful death of a pet.

"Veterinarians are very compassionate people who work extremely hard to provide the best care they can, but sometimes things go awry," said Dr. Arthur Tennyson of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). "The loss of an animal is a very emotional thing."

Historically, courts in most states have recognized pets as mere property — with a value equal to the cost of replacing them. But that philosophy hasn’t made animal lovers happy.

"We want the status of animals elevated," said Kenneth Ross, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "A pet is something more than a mere piece of property. It’s something more than a chair or a car."

But vets say a landslide of frivolous lawsuits could change the way they do business — forcing them to charge more to cover their malpractice insurance.

"It might engender an increased number of suits, because too often some people think they ought to be able to get rich over a misfortune," predicted Tennyson.

Still, the De La Garza family wants to ensure that what happened to their dog Grizzley won’t happen to them — or other pet owners — again.

"He was one of our children. We had him from the time he was a baby," De La Garza said. "All of our vacations — everything — was planned around taking him with us, just like my other (two) kids."

"I loved Grizzley. I still grieve for him," she said. "It’s a life. They should be held responsible."

Fox News’ Catherine Donaldson-Evans contributed to this report