Comma comeuppance: When rogue punctuation proves costly

(BBC)—A US dairy faces an overtime bill of about $10m (£8m), after a group of truck drivers won a pay dispute that hinged on some punctuation.

An appeal court sided with the drivers, saying the lack of a comma in the state of Maine’s overtime laws made the regulations too ambiguous.

The ruling has been branded “profoundly nerdy” by Quartz, while the Guardian says it “will delight grammar nerds and Oxford comma enthusiasts anywhere”.

So how did it happen?

Well, Maine’s law says the following activities do not qualify for overtime pay: “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 drivers said the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution” meant the legislation applied only to the single activity of “packing”, rather than to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities.

And because drivers distribute the goods, but do not pack them, they argued they were therefore eligible for overtime pay – backdated over several years.

A district court had earlier ruled in favour of the dairy firm.

But circuit judge David J Barron overturned that, writing: “We conclude that the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard.

“And because, under Maine law, 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.”

Their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, is likely to appeal.

But if it were to ultimately lose, it would not be the first business to fall foul of punctuation problems, spelling mistakes and typos.