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$5 million payout in US for a missing comma

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Ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs, Oakhurst Dairy settled an overtime dispute with its drivers that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law.

The dairy company in US’s Portland, Maine, agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, according to court documents filed on Thursday.

Last year, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers, granting those who love the Oxford comma a chance to run a victory lap across the internet.

It appears that the Maine Legislature has learned its lesson, at least. It revised the disputed state law last year to end ambiguity by adding new punctuation.

But the resolution means there will be no ruling from the land’s highest courts on whether the Oxford comma — the oftenskipped second comma in a series like “A, B, and C” — is a nuisance or a sacred defender of clarity, as its fans and detractors debate.

The case began in 2014, when three truck drivers sued the dairy for what they said was four years’ worth of overtime pay they had been denied. Maine law requires time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it 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 followed the last comma in the first sentence was the crux of the matter: “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.

Had there been a comma after “shipment,” the meaning would have been clear. David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, stated it plainly in an interview in March: “That comma would have sunk our ship.”

Since then, the Maine Legislature addressed the punctuation problem. Here’s how it reads now:
The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.

The change, sponsored by senator Andre Cushing, was among dozens of legislative tweaks signed by the governor in June. “It clarifies the intent of the legislature, to conform with federal law, that the distribution of certain products is exempt from the provisions governing overtime pay,” according to a summary of the changes. “It amends the 1995 law by reordering the series of exempt tasks for the purpose of eliminating any perceived ambiguity.”

Updated: February 11, 2018 — 2:28 am

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