PORTLAND, Maine — The Oxford comma, or lack thereof, has been at the center of a lawsuit between the Oakhurst Dairy, owned by Dairy Farmers of America, and their drivers.
This Maine dairy company has settled a lawsuit over an overtime dispute hinging on the use of the Oxford comma.
Drivers with Oakhurst Dairy filed the lawsuit in 2014 seeking more than $10 million. Court documents filed Feb. 8 show that they settled for $5 million.
The original lawsuit was filed by three truck drivers suing the dairy for what they said was four years’ worth of overtime pay.
Maine’s law requires time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it has carved out exemptions for:
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.
What follows the last comma in the first sentence was the critical point: “packing for shipment or distribution of.” The court ruled that it was not clear whether the law exempted the distribution of the three categories that followed, or if it exempted packing for the shipment or distribution of them.
A federal appeals court decided to keep the drivers’ lawsuit alive last year.
Defining the comma
The Oxford Dictionary states; “The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list.” Not all writers and publishers use the serial comma, often called Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by the Oxford University Press.
It can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words, as in this sentence: ‘These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green,’” states the Oxford Dictionary.
Each side argued that the overtime law’s evident purpose and legislative history confirms its preferred reading.
The drivers noted within the lawsuit that it should be read; packing for shipment or packing for distribution, that the “or” implies that packing is modifying both terms “shipment” and “distribution.”
“The drivers said the words referred to the activity of packing and shipping, but they don’t do any packing,” the federal appeal states.
Oakhurst disagreed, stating that packing for shipment and packing for distribution would be the same thing — the words being synonyms — and that “distribution” stands alone.
The federal court sided with the drivers stating, “We concluded that the Exemption F is ambiguous even after we take account of the relevant interpretive aids and the law’s purpose and legislative history.
“For that reason, we conclude that, under Maine law, we must construe the exemption in the narrow manner that the drivers favor.”