Missing Comma Means Labor Suit Remains Alive

An appeal of a labor dispute in Maine hinged on the most contentious debate related to punctuation, the Oxford comma.

Earlier this week, a First Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in favor of a group of truck drivers from Oakhurst Dairy. The truck drivers had sued the owners of the company over three years ago for overtime wages that were not paid.

This week’s ruling overturns a District Court ruling from earlier that was in favor of Oakhurst, keeping the dispute of over $10 million in OT wages for 75 drivers of Oakhurst still alive.

The opening line of a 30-page court decision said that, “for want of a comma, we have the case.”

In question is the Oxford comma, known as well as serial comma, and is used just after the next to last item that is in a list of three items or more and proceeds and or or.

An example is he drank water, milk and orange juice.

It has been the center of debates on grammar and punctuation for years. Advocates of the Oxford comma argue that the punctuation mark gives clarity as well as avoids any confusion.

Those against its use say that if the lack of the Oxford comma causes such confusion, the sentence should be written with much more clarity.

In the labor dispute involving Oakhurst, a great deal of focus in on one sentence in the Maine law that describes how some workers are not eligible to receive overtime if they are in canning, preserving, processing, freezing, drying, storing, marketing, packing for shipment or distribution for agricultural produce, fish and meat products and perishable goods.

There was not serial comma placed between shipment and or. The ruling was determined by whether packing for shipment or distribution was a single overtime exempt part of work or if packing for shipment and distribution were two distinct types of activities that are each exempt.

The truck drivers say the passage means people who are involved in packing for shipment or for distribution are exempt. However, distribution was not an individual category as it was written, and since drivers do not pack for either of the purposes, the law does not apply with them.

The district court ruled in Oakhurst’s favor that the law was clear in its intend to count distribution as an exempt activity.

However, the appeals court disagreed arguing the passage was too ambiguous and the driver’s interpretation had more credence.

It is likely that Oakhurst will appeal this decision.

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