“Looseness of grammar leads to looseness of language; looseness of language leads to looseness of thought; looseness of thought leads to self-deception; and self-deception leads to disaster.” (Anon.)
In the recent US case of O'Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, the lack of a single comma led to a 5 million dollar pay-out by the defendant. The case, a class-action lawsuit against Oakhurst Dairy (owned by a national cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America Inc.) in the state of Maine, involved drivers of Oakhurst Dairy who claimed they were owed years of unpaid overtime wages, due to the way in which the commas were used in the state legislation governing overtime payments. Maine’s labour laws state that anyone who works more than 40 hours a week is entitled to 1.5X pay, except for certain exemptions. The relevant exemptions being workers involved in:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish product; and
(3) Perishable foods.”
At first glance nothing in this seems out of place and it looks very straight forward. However, the drivers argued that since “packing for shipment” and “distribution” were not separated by an Oxford comma that made them a single activity. The drivers further argued that while they did indeed “distribute” perishable food, they did not “pack” it, which meant that they were not exempted, and that they should accordingly be paid, overtime pay. A Maine federal court had initially ruled that the drivers were not entitled to overtime under state law. The drivers appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
A three-judge appeals panel heard the case, and Judge Barron opened his 29-page ruling by saying, “For want of a comma, we have this case.” 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 the “distribution” of them. Therefore, had there been a comma after “shipment,” the meaning would have been clear. However, as it was not, the court concluded that the lack of a comma made the language ambiguous, and that the ambiguity “must be construed liberally.” The judges were unanimous in taking the side of the drivers. Oakhurst Dairy accordingly had to pay $5 million to compensate the drivers for unpaid overtime.
The case serves as a caution against careless drafting and that the slightest misstep in punctuation can have serious unintended consequences. Attention to punctuation is not merely pedantry, and rather poetically, the clarity provided by the correct use of the comma was described by E.B. White tellingly in the following terms, “Commas… fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining their victim.”