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The Lack of an Oxford Comma Just Cost a Dairy $5 Million

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According to court records that were filed on Thursday, a group of dairy delivery drivers will receive a settlement in the amount of $5 million after a judge ruled that a missing Oxford comma in a state labor law impacted how the regulation could be interpreted, leaving the company on the hook for unpaid overtime.

Drivers with Oakhurst Dairy in Maine originally filed a lawsuit in 2014. The issue was whether they should be paid overtime for work hours outside of the standard work week based on a particular state law.

The dispute between the drivers and Oakhurst revolved around one specific statement, and the ruling hinged largely on whether the lack of an Oxford comma in the legislation affected how the passage should be interpreted.

In Maine, workers are not eligible for overtime for “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of various agricultural products, including dairy.

The focus was on the lack of an Oxford comma in the “packing for shipment or distribution” segment of the law.

The drivers stated that the phrase referred to packing and shipping as a single act, not two separate applicable tasks, and that, since they don’t participate in packing duties, they were eligible for overtime. They were seeking damages in the amount of $10 million based mainly on the missing Oxford comma.

Oakhurst disagreed, and denied any wrongdoing, but a judge determined that the missing Oxford comma supported the drivers’ claims.

“Specifically, if that [list of exemptions] used a serial [Oxford] comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform,” said the judge. Since that comma wasn’t present, the judge ruled in the drivers’ favor last March.

Ultimately, according to a report by CNN, Oakhurst chose to propose a settlement in the amount of $5 million instead of pursuing the case further, since they deemed additional litigation as too costly.

The settlement does have to be reviewed by a federal judge before it is considered official.

To prevent similar issues in the future, the Maine Legislature approved edits to the law to clarify the intent behind the exemption.

Now, semicolons separate each item on the list and distribution and packing have been adjusted to reflect them as two separate tasks, reading as “packing for shipment; or distributing,” each of which is ineligible for overtime individually. This means that drivers, such as those who filed a lawsuit against Oakhurst, and now clearly not entitled to overtime per the State of Maine.