The absence of an Oxford comma, otherwise known as the serial comma, cost a company from the state of Maine millions of dollars in a class-action lawsuit over overtime pay.
In a 29-page court decision released Mar. 13 by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the lack of the serial comma could lead Portland-based Oakhurst Dairy to lose a total of $10 million to its truck drivers.
Details of the Case
Back in 2014, three truck drivers sued the company and sought over four years’ worth of overtime pay they say had been denied to them. According to Maine law, workers should be paid 1.5 times their rate for every work hour rendered beyond 40 hours — but with certain exemptions.
The state law notes that overtime rules do not apply to “[t]he canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of meat and fish produce, agricultural goods, and perishable goods.
The question the 1st U.S. district court of appeals pondered was: do the rules cover the sole distribution of the three goods categories, which is what truck drivers do?
While delivery drivers distribute the food items, they do not pack the items themselves, so the interpretation of the sentence proved critical to the ruling in the lawsuit. A comma after the word “shipment” would have clarified that the law does not cover distribution.
Absent Serial Comma Wins The Case for Workers
The court of appeals, reversing a lower court’s decision, agreed with the drivers’ claim, saying that the serial comma’s absence led to sufficient uncertainty and thus ruling to the complainants’ favor.
In Maine law, when ambiguity exists in a rule, the court must tilt in favor of labor.
“That comma would have sunk our ship,” said David G. Webbert, an attorney representing the drivers.
The truck drivers earned up to $52,000 a year without overtime and worked 12 extra hours each week on average, said Webbert. The suit was filed by the three, but around 75 will share the proceeds.
The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which was the language the law was anchored on, explicitly instructs users to not use the serial comma. It cautioned them to use commas “thoughtfully and sparingly.”
The Debate Goes On
The serial comma is used before conjunctions such as “or” and “and” in a series of three or more items. While its firm supporters push for its use in the name of clarity, critics feel the serial comma is superfluous, and sentences can be understood without it.
The debate continues in circles passionate about the written word. While the Associated Press comes out against the comma in general, the Chicago Manual of Style as well as the Oxford University Press style keep using it to “resolve ambiguity.”
The New York Times stylebook generally recommends against serial commas unless when necessary for clarity, but one editor’s definition of clarity may differ from another’s, which has resulted in one person adding the serial comma to a sentence only to have the next one omit it.
But this isn’t the first time in legal history where a coma made the difference. The serial comma figured, for instance, in a $1 million battle between Canadian firms back in 2006 as well as in an 1872 tariff law.
U.S. appeals judge David J. Barron declared: “For want of a comma, we have this case.”