A simple missing comma recently earned some U.S. truck drivers a substantial payout from their employer. Oakhurst Dairy lost a multi-million-dollar court case over the ‘Oxford comma’, used between the last two items in a list.
The drivers were suing their employer for four years’ worth of unpaid overtime that they argued the company owed them. This was due to a state law which required the workers to be paid time-and-a-half for overtime. However, the statute that listed the jobs excluded from the rule was missing a crucial punctuation mark.
The Oxford Comma
An optional punctuation mark, the Oxford comma separates the final item in a list of three or more things. For example, ‘cars come in green, blue, and red’, compared to ‘cars come in green, blue and red’.
The law in Maine says that employees are not eligible for overtime if they work in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of certain foods.
The case depended on whether the last item on the list referred to just one activity, or two separate ones. The company claimed “packing for shipment” and “distribution” related to two separate activities.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit overturned the district court’s original decision, that had found in the employers’ favour. Instead, it backed the drivers’ argument that “packing for shipment or distribution” literally just referred to actual packing and therefore, the drivers should not miss out on overtime.
The cost of a missing comma
The drivers argued that the law excluded only workers involved in packing for shipment or distribution, rather than distributors. This one small, missing punctuation mark will now see 75 drivers splitting a payout of around $10 million between them.
Whilst we do not have a similar statute in the UK regarding overtime payments, this is a useful reminder that contracts, policies and any workforce or collective agreements should be double checked for clarity to ensure that there can be no disagreement as to what payments are intended and promised.