PORTLAND, Maine — It all came down to a missing comma, and not just any one. And it’s reignited a longstanding debate over whether the punctuation is necessary.
A federal appeals court decided this week to keep alive a lawsuit by dairy drivers seeking more than $10 million in an overtime pay dispute.
It concerned Maine’s overtime law, which doesn’t apply to the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” foods.
There’s no Oxford, or serial, comma in the “packing for shipment or distribution” part. The drivers said the words referred to the single activity of packing, which the drivers don’t do. The defendant, Oakhurst Dairy, said the words referenced two different activities and drivers fall within the exemption.
Circuit Judge David Barron wrote: “For want of a comma, we have this case.”
The court sided with the drivers.
“Comma sense ain’t so common,” Jeffrey Neil Young, an attorney for the drivers, said Friday.
David Webbert, another attorney for the drivers, said the “fight for overtime rights has been vindicated” by what he called a “landmark” ruling made possible by an ambiguous exemption and a lack of a punctuation mark.
“Our argument was that it was a train wreck of a sentence,” Webbert said. “The tie goes to the workers.”
Oakhurst representatives said they plan to keep fighting the suit and declined to comment on the comma kerfuffle. A trial could follow.
— The Associated Press