By Daniel Victor, New York Times
Ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs, Oakhurst Dairy settled an overtime dispute with its drivers that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law.
The dairy company in Portland, Me., agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, according to court documents filed on Thursday.
The relatively small-scale dispute gained international notoriety last year when the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers, granting those who love the Oxford comma a chance to run a victory lap across the internet.
But the resolution means there will be no ruling from the land’s highest courts on whether the Oxford comma — the often-skipped second comma in a series like “A, B, and C” — is an unnecessary nuisance or a sacred defender of clarity, as its fans and detractors endlessly debate. (In most cases, The Times stylebook discourages the serial comma, often called the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by the Oxford University Press.)
It appears the Maine Legislature has learned its lesson, at least. It revised the disputed state law last year to end ambiguity by adding new punctuation — but not in the way you might be thinking.
The case began in 2014, when three truck drivers sued the dairy for what they said was four years’ worth of overtime pay they had been denied. Maine law requires time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carved out exemptions for:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
Meat and fish products; and
What followed the last comma in the first sentence was the crux of the matter: “packing for shipment or distribution of.” 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 distribution of them.
Had there been a comma after “shipment,” the meaning would have been clear. David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, stated it plainly in an interview in March: “That comma would have sunk our ship.”
Since then, the Maine Legislature addressed the punctuation problem. Here’s how it reads now:
The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:
Meat and fish products; and
So now we get to replace Oxford comma pedantry with semicolon pedantry. The change, sponsored by Senator Andre Cushing, was among dozens of legislative tweaks signed by the governor in June.
“It clarifies the intent of the legislature, to conform with federal law, that the distribution of certain products is exempt from the provisions governing overtime pay,” according to a summary of the changes. “It amends the 1995 law by reordering the series of exempt tasks for the purpose of eliminating any perceived ambiguity.”
As far as the actual overtime dispute goes, Mr. Webbert said the case ended well.
“We are pleased the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all parties,” he said in an email.