The $10 Million Dollar Comma

05/19/2017 | Class Actions/Mass Torts

Us lawyers are punctuation fanatics! We are constantly trying to make our writing clear and concise.  And while most people probably don’t give any thought to commas on a day to day basis—lawyers do.  And sometimes our discussion over grammar can get interesting.  But I’ll bet you never thought one little comma could be worth $10 million dollars!

Well, that’s exactly what’s at stake in a class action lawsuit filed by some truck drivers against the Oakhurst Dairy company in Portland, Maine.  Back in 2014, several truck drivers sued the Oakhurst Dairy for overtime pay they believe the Dairy owed them.  The drivers believed Maine law required the Dairy to pay them 1.5 times their normal hourly rate for overtime.  The law has some exceptions which the diary believed applied that excluded the truck drivers from getting the time and a half pay.  But before we try to clean up the spilled milk, a quick grammar lesson is in order.

The Oxford Comma: In a list of three or more items — like “beans, potatoes, and rice” — some people would put a comma after potatoes, and some would leave it out. A lot of people feel very, very strongly about it. Here’s an example of why:

I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

Without the Oxford comma, the sentence above could be interpreted as stating that you love your parents, and your parents are named Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty. Here’s the same sentence with the Oxford comma:

I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.

 

With the Oxford comma it is clear you love Lady Gaga, Humpty Dumpty, and your parents. Four different individuals. 

 

So, now back to our milk case.  The Maine law at issue says 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.

I bolded the words packing and distribution above because those are the two words at issue.  So, does the law exempt people who distribute, like a dairy truck driver? Or does it only exempt people packing for shipment or distribution, like a warehouse employee?  If there were a comma after “shipment,” it might have been clear that the law exempted packing and exempted the distribution of perishable foods.  But the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the language was vague and sided with the dairy truck drivers.  This could cost the company as much as $10 million dollars in overtime wages.  More troubling for the Dairy company is that the statute, as written, complied with the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which specifically instructs lawmakers to NOT use the Oxford comma.  What’s a writer to do?!  At least for me, the answer is clear…