Court Sides With Truckers In Wage Dispute Because Of Missing Comma

"For want of a comma, we have this case."

Court Sides With Truckers In Wage Dispute Because Of Missing Comma

A Maine court has sided with a group of dairy truck drivers in a dispute on overtime pay because of a missing Oxford Comma.

It all began back in May 2014 when a group of dairy truck drivers sued Maine-based Oakhurst Dairy for $10 million in overtime pay. Oakhurst Dairy cited a Maine law that said that certain jobs are exempt from overtime pay. Oakhurst Dairy won that lawsuit.  The truck drivers didn’t give up and the case wound up in the United States Court of Appeals.

What the heck is an Oxford Comma?

That’s where the comma comes in.

You see, an Oxford Comma is the the last comma in a list of things.

With the Oxford Comma: “Susan eats with her children, Elvis, and Sam.”

In this sentence, it is clear that Susan is chowing down with her kids in addition to Elvis and Sa.

Without the Oxford Comma: “Susan eats with her children, Elvis and Sam.”

Without that comma, it becomes unclear whether Susan is dining with her kids plus Elvis and Sam or if Susan’s kids ARE Elvis and Sam.

Judge David J. Barron ultimately found that the language of the “Exemption F” portion of the law was too ambiguous without the comma and sided with the truckers.

Here’s how the law reads:

Specifically, Exemption F states that the protection of the overtime law does 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.

Oakhurst Dairy said that the law meant the “packing for shipment” and “distribution” were two separate jobs — making the truck drivers ineligible for overtime pay.

Barron ruled that without an Oxford comma after “shipment”, the actions of packing for shipment and distribution were considered all one job. Because the truckers delivered the products but were not involved in the packaging of those products per shipment, they were not covered by the exemption.

From Barron’s decision:

For want of a comma, we have this case. It arises from a dispute between a Maine dairy company and its delivery drivers, and it concerns the scope of an exemption from Maine’s overtime law. Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law’s protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.

Interestingly, lawmakers in Maine are actually not encouraged to use the Oxford comma because it saves space to skip it — except in cases when a sentence becomes ambiguous without it.

The case will likely head back to court, but for now, the truckers can savor the sweet taste of victory — thanks to that missing comma.