Naperville Business Lawyer Discusses the Missing Comma That Cost a Dairy $5 Million

comma, Naperville business law attorneyAs a business law attorney, I understand that language must be precise and accurate when one is writing legally-binding agreements or contracts. Vague and Imprecise phrasing can sometimes cause a contract or other legal document to be unenforceable or useless. Sometimes, ambiguity in the laws themselves can cause confusion and problems. One dairy company from Portland, Maine now knows this better than anyone. The company recently had to shell out $5 million in back wages to employees because of a missing comma.

Drivers Sue Employer Over Lack of Overtime Pay

The lawsuit began in 2014 when delivery truck drivers brought a lawsuit against their employer, Oakhurst Dairy. The drivers claimed that they had not received time-and-a-half pay for hours they worked above their regular 40-hour workweek. Their employer claimed that the company did not owe them overtime because they did not qualify for it according to the law. At the time, the state of Maine required that employers pay their employees time-and-a-half pay for overtime hours, but made exemptions for those whose positions involved:

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  • Agricultural produce;
  • Meat and fish products; and
  • Perishable foods.”

If you are someone who is familiar with the Oxford comma debate, you may have noticed that there is not a comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution of.” The dairy drivers claimed that this lack of comma made the law read like only those who were packing the products were exempt from the overtime pay law. The way they interpreted the sentence, “distribution” workers such as themselves were not exempt from the standard overtime rules and, therefore, were eligible for overtime pay.

Dairy Will Pay $5 Million to Employees

The drivers lost their 2014 lawsuit against Oakhurst Dairy but then appealed in March 2017. In a ruling which gained national attention, a United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit determined that the absent comma between the items “packing for shipment” and “distribution” created enough vagueness to rule in favor of the delivery truck drivers. Oakhurst Dairy agreed to pay the drivers $5 million.

The Maine legislature has since updated the law regarding overtime pay to provide more clarity. The law now uses semicolons instead of commas.

Contact Our Experienced Lawyers for Help

Although the debate over the use of the Oxford comma will continue, one thing is certain: when it comes to the law, language can be everything. The Gierach Law Firm can assist you in drafting and due diligence review of business contracts, business litigation, and more. Call us at 630-756-1160 to schedule your initial confidential consultation with an experienced Naperville business lawyer today.



The New York Times