Is a Comma Really Worth $10 Million?

Today I would like to speak to you about how details are important when it comes to the practice of law. Sometimes, all it takes it one tiny little thing that can change the outcome of an entire claim.

For those who don’t know, an Oxford comma is what we also refer to as the serial comma. It is a stylistic recommendation that a comma should be used before coordinate conjunctions (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms. This advocation exists to try and avoid ambiguity. But the world of writing seems to keep fighting a constant battle on whether this comma should be taken as a mere recommendation or something more.

The latest scandal comes from Maine, where a local dairy product company is facing a lawsuit for over $10 Million due in overtime hours to truck drivers, and at the heart of the dispute is the lack of this comma in a state law. In essence, the clause states that the following tasks are not eligible for overtime:

 

“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 truck drivers, who distribute the perishable goods but do not handle the packaging of the boxes, argued that the lack of the comma indicates “(…) packaging for shipment or distribution” is one task rather than two, and therefore claim compensation in overtime work. Of up to $10 Million. Had the clause read “(…)packaging for shipment, or distribution” and it would have been clear that both shipment or distribution are in fact ineligible for overtime pay, as they are two separate and different tasks, they claim.  

Of course, this is a delicate matter. If it wasn’t complicated, linguists themselves wouldn’t be fighting over it for such a long time. For now, the court has agreed with the drivers, despite the fact Maine’s legislative style guide counsels against the Oxford comma. But I’m sure the matter is not to be over any time soon and we will hear from this case again in the future.

The law is made of tiny details like this. At the Law Offices of Moseley Collins we know the law. If you need legal help, give us a call. There is absolutely NO FEE to discuss your case and there is absolutely no fee unless we win and get you the money that you are entitled to.

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