April 3, 2018

An Expensive Comma

Several years ago, some truck drivers sued their employer for a significant amount of overtime pay that they claimed they should have been paid. As you may know, overtime is often required by law if you work over 40 hours in one week. In the state of Maine at the time, there were a few exceptions to the overtime requirement though. The laws focused on those working in the agriculture and perishable products industries.

This dispute literally came down to a simple comma that was not in the text of the law.  Specifically, the so-called “Oxford comma.” 

The Oxford comma is the second comma in any list of three. Some think it matters, while some do not.  It can matter, though. 

For example:

a) “The world is made up of idiots, lawyers, and clients.” Thus, there are three distinct categories of people.

b) “The world is made up of idiots, lawyers and clients.”  This can be read to mean there are two categories of idiots (Lawyers and clients). This is a FAR different meaning!

The Maine law read that overtime did NOT have to be paid in:

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.

So, the courts had to grapple with what “packing for shipment or distribution of” actually meant.

a) Did the language exempt only the “packing for the shipment or distribution of the categories?” If so, overtime was owed to distributers who did not pack, like truck drivers.

b) Did the law exempt the “distribution” of the three listed categories? If so, they got nothing extra.

It turned out to be a multi-million-dollar issue.

But, before the court could rule, the dairy company settled for $5 million to resolve the over-time claims. That comma was sure expensive. 

Mr. Peel seeks justice for those injured in motorcycle, truck and car accidents, disability and medical malpractice. He often addresses churches, clubs and groups without charge. Mr. Peel may be reached through wherein other articles may be accessed.

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