Tag Archives: Oakhurst Dairy

Case Of The Missing Comma

Grammarians and legal eagles among you will want to read about how a punctuation mark known as the Oxford comma is the crucial factor in a class action involving overtime pay for truck drivers.

This is just one of the items covered in our Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) Daily newsletter today, a must-read publication for anyone in and around the insurance industry. (Sign up by emailing daily@iii.org).

Citing the New York Times, the I.I.I. Daily reports that on March 13 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit handed down a lengthy court decision that is seen as a grammar lesson that could lead to an estimated $10 million loss for a dairy company in Portland, Maine.

The backstory: In 2014 three truck drivers filed a lawsuit seeking more than four years of overtime pay they alleged that Oakhurst Dairy had denied them unfairly. Under Maine law, workers have to be paid 1.5 times their normal rate for each hour worked in excess of 40 per week, with some exceptions.

Punctuation refresher: Grammarians are very polarized about whether a comma should be placed before the last of a series of items in a list, and some insist on what is referred to as the Oxford comma, one preceding the final item, while others habitually omit it. The absence of the comma can change meaning.

Comma in question: The state law involved in the case says that overtime rules do not apply to “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.” The question before the court was whether the law intended to exempt distribution of the three categories or packing for their shipping or distribution.

The decision: The appeals court ruled in favor of the drivers, after finding that the absence of a comma after “shipment” led to uncertainty about whether the law exempts applies to delivery drivers who distribute perishable foods, although they do not pack them. The appeals court reversed a lower court decision that denied truckers overtime.

If you’re surprised at the $10 million difference a comma can make, consider how important it is to draft insurance contracts and policy language that use words and punctuation correctly. This Deepwater Horizon coverage dispute is a good example.