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Missing Punctuation Mark Could Cost Maine Dairy Company $10 Million

Every year, civil lawsuits cost the U.S. economy $239 billion. And while frivolous lawsuits often won’t pay off in the end, more substantial class action suits can make a huge difference for individuals who have all been wronged by the same individual or company. In the case of product liability suits, a group of plaintiffs could sue if they’ve suffered harm due to a medical product, environmental hazard, or a certain type of automobile.

But, as one recent class-action suit shows, a faulty or dangerous component isn’t always required to seek compensation. In this case, the outcome of a suit pertaining to overtime pay for truck drivers may hinge upon a single, polarizing punctuation mark: the Oxford comma.

Back in 2014, three truck drivers sued Maine-based Oakhurst Dairy. They sought more than four years’ worth of overtime pay that had been previously denied by the company. In Maine, the law requires that workers be paid time-and-a-half for every hour they work over the allotted 40 per week. There are exceptions to this state law, but unfortunately for Oakhurst Dairy, state legislatures should have paid a bit more attention in English class.

As the law is written, it says that overtime rules do not apply to, “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: 1) agricultural produce; 2) meat and fish products; and 3) perishable foods.”

Grammar nerds will likely notice that the list of actions is missing an Oxford comma. Most writers tend to have strong opinions about whether an Oxford comma should be used in a list. For example, in a list of three or more items — “notebooks, pencils, and erasers” — some people feel that last comma should always be included. Others choose never to include it. Much of the time, it’s up to a writer’s personal preference, but in some cases, it should be included for clarity.

The lack of the Oxford comma in this Maine state law makes the regulation quite ambiguous. One could interpret the law as saying that only the distribution of those food products is exempt from overtime pay, or that the packing for either shipping or distribution is exempt. Without the comma, it’s difficult to distinguish the law’s intent.

While the law’s language follows state guidelines, which specifically say that the Oxford comma should not be used, the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual does say that if an item in a list is modified, caution should be taken. It seems that the writers of the law missed the memo.
And because these truck drivers deliver, but do not pack, these boxed food items, the exclusion of this little optional punctuation mark might have denied them thousands of dollars every year.

In an appeals court earlier this month, a decision was made in favor of the drivers on the reasoning that the absence of the comma led to too much uncertainty.

The 29-page court decision could force Oakhurst Dairy to make an estimated $10 million payout to the drivers affected. Although three drivers filed the class-action suit, around 75 drivers will end up sharing the money.

Oakhurst Dairy employs around 200 workers and brings in $110 million in annual sales. Oakhurst president, John H. Bennett, said in an interview, “our management team values our employees and we take employee compensation seriously.”

The suit may never have stood a chance if only the state of Maine had taken its language fundamentals as seriously.