Wal-Mart said Tuesday that the company has agreed to settle claims from several families of victims who died in a 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people and was traced to a Colorado cantaloupe farm.
Wal-Mart settled with 23 families, including nine in Colorado, said Bill Marler, the families' attorney. The terms of the settlements were kept confidential.
There are still 40 civil cases pending, according to FoodSafetyNews.com.
Wal-Mart spokesman Randy Hargrove said the company is "committed to our customers' safety and we take food safety concerns like this very seriously."
Hargrove said Wal-Mart stores in Colorado and other states removed the contaminated cantaloupe from the produce department as soon as the company learned of the outbreak, but some relatives said the company did not react fast enough.
-- Outbreak traced to Jensen Farms
Two Colorado cantaloupe farmers pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges stemming from the deadly outbreak and were sentenced to five years of probation and six months of home detention. A federal magistrate also ordered brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen to each pay $150,000 in restitution and perform 100 hours of community service.
However, that order was changed last month to $13,184 in restitution. The U.S. Attorney's Office said only three victims came forward to claim a financial loss because of the outbreak: one was for $7,624, one for $4,644 and one for $916.
The Jensens pleaded guilty last year to introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
According to federal regulators, conditions at Jensen Farms caused the outbreak. Investigators said the melons likely were contaminated in the farm's packing house because of dirty water on the floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment.
About one week before Colorado officials detected the outbreak's first victim, an inspector sent by farm inspection company Primus Labs gave the melon farm a 96 percent "superior" rating, The Denver Post reported.
Jensen Farms, a fourth-generation farm in southeastern Colorado, filed for bankruptcy within a year of the outbreak, and lawsuits against the farm were resolved through bankruptcy court.
Marler's law firm has filed lawsuits on behalf of 44 families, representing 28 who died and 17 who were sickened but survived, against multiple defendants in 12 states. Medical expenses from those cases total more than $12 million, Marler said.
-- Victims met with Jensens
As part of their plea, the Jensens agreed to meet with victims and answer questions about what happened at their farm. About a dozen people attended the private meeting last November at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver.
The 90-minute meeting included a presentation by the Jensens about their farm’s operation, according to victims who were in the room.
Among those attending was Elaine Stevens, whose husband Herb died in July from listeria-related complications after eating contaminated cantaloupe.
"It gave us a chance to actually put faces on the Jensen brothers," Elaine Stevens told 7NEWS reported Marc Stewart. "I don't think that they meant to do anything deliberately wrong. But they followed some procedures that just weren't quite right."
Stevens’ daughter, Jennifer Exley, also attended. Exley has become a food safety activist since her father’s death.
"Somebody asked me once if I thought they were bad people," Exley said. "I couldn't answer the question at that time. I personally don't think the Jensens are bad people. I think they were led astray. In their heart, I think they've done something wrong."
Exley stressed the Jensens aren’t the only ones who need to be held accountable. She feels the government and the grocery stores need to accept responsibility as well.