A group of dairy truck drivers won a case over about $10 million of overtime back pay in federal appeals court Monday because of one missing comma in Maine’s laws.
The case of truck drivers against their dairy distribution company came down to whether the drivers fell under an exemption written in Maine’s wage and overtime law that says companies don’t owe overtime to certain employees delivering agricultural products.
The truck drivers said they were owed overtime from their company, and the appeals court ruled in their favor because the law was not written clearly enough. The entire case arose from, and was decided by, grammar.
The Oxford comma, also called serial comma, comes before the conjunction in a list of separate things. It’s hotly contested bit of punctuation. Proponents of serial comma use say that Oxford commas add clarity, and make it harder to misinterpret a sentence.
Here is the exemption to overtime wages in Maine’s law, with added emphasis:
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.
If the law had been written with a serial comma to say that ‘… packing for shipment, or distribution” of agricultural products were activities not eligible for overtime pay, there would have been no confusion. “Distribution” and “packing for shipment” would have been separate items on the list, and the drivers would have had no case.
As it is written, however, “distribution” is modified by the word “packing,” meaning that the sentence could be interpreted to mean that it’s not distribution activities exempted from overtime rules, but packing for distribution.
The attorneys for the truck drivers argued just that, and the appeals court agreed.
Because the exemption was “actually not so clear,” the appeals court decided that the law had to be interpreted narrowly. The judge decided that since Maine legal guidance states that “ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption.”
Why was the comma missing from the law? Maine’s rules for drafting legislation advises against using the serial comma, but also includes a provision to “Be careful if an item in the series is modified.”
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