A lawsuit brought by a group of five drivers has taken a surprising turn thanks to a missing comma in a piece of state law governing overtime pay.
Kevin O’Connor, Christopher O’Connor, James Adam Cox, Michael Fraser, and Robert McNally all drove for Oakhurst Dairy, a company based in Maine. Maine law is very specific about when workers are eligible for overtime. Oakhurst Dairy was pretty sure that their drivers did not qualify. The drivers thought differently.
When the drivers first sued for their overtime pay, the court ruled against them. When they appealed the ruling however, a judge overturned the decision and sided with the drivers because of an Oxford comma.
What’s an Oxford comma? With a list of three or more items, a comma is used to separate each item. The last comma in the list is optional. In most cases, there is no difference in meaning. For example, saying “butter, chicken, and eggs” is the same as saying “butter, chicken and eggs.” The comma that comes before ‘and’ is known as an Oxford comma.
So what does any of this have to do with $10 million dollars and truck drivers? Sometimes, the absence of the Oxford comma can cause confusion. Like when a state overtime law lists activities that don’t qualify for overtime pay as “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.”
The $10 million question is this: Is it when someone is ‘packing for shipment or distribution’ that they are exempt, or is an employee exempt when they either pack for shipment or are involved in distribution?
Since drivers were only involved in distribution, they argued that the lack of a comma before “or distribution” meant that only employees who were “packing for shipment or distribution” should be exempt from overtime. Since they were only involved in distribution, and not the packing, the drivers felt that they should be awarded overtime.
Amazingly, the judge agreed with their argument, overturning the previous court ruling.
Since the decision could end up costing Oakhurst Dairy as much as $10 million according to some estimations, it is likely that this ruling will be appealed once more.