A costly class-action lawsuit about overtime pay and dairy delivery in the United States didn’t come down to trucks, milk, or money. Instead, it hinged on one missing comma.
In this lawsuit, delivery drivers for Oakhurst Dairy in Maine, Portland, USA had been tussling with their employers over whether they qualify for overtime. In March 2017, a US court of appeals determined that certain clauses of the state’s overtime laws are grammatically ambiguous. Because of that lack of clarity, the drivers won their appeal and were found eligible for overtime.
At the core of the case is the Oxford comma – a polarising punctuation mark. So, what is an Oxford comma? It is the final comma in a list of things. For example: I like eggs, ham, and cheese. The Oxford comma comes right after ham. In the example sentence, it’s clear I like three types of food. Remove this comma and there is a potential to read the last two items as one combination item.
Back to the lawsuit. According to the state law in Maine, the following activities are among those that don’t qualify for overtime pay.
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.
Note the comma-less space between the words “shipment” and “or”. Is packing (for shipment or distribution) a single activity that is exempt from overtime pay? Or are packing and distributing two different activities, and both exempt?
In the absence of the Oxford comma, the judge ruled that the law is ambiguous as to whether distribution is a separate activity, or whether the whole last clause is one activity. As a result, the court ruled in favour of the drivers, costing the dairy a whopping US$10 million (S$14.1 million) – all because of a comma mistake.
Image source: http://pc.blogspot.sg/2015/09/the-oxford-comma-kanye-west-of.html