Human Resources News & Insights

One missing punctuation mark cost this company $10 million

A single comma will end up costing one employer $10 million in unpaid overtime.  

Drivers for the Maine-based Oakhurst Dairy are getting $10 million in overtime back following a class-action lawsuit.

List of conditions

Specifically, a missing comma in the following list of conditions of when OT doesn’t apply sunk the company:

“… marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of productions.”

Lawyers for the class argued that a comma before the word “or” would be needed to explicitly deny overtime for  workers who pack for shipment and, separately, for workers who distribute products.

The missing punctuation mark is known as the “Oxford comma” — used to separate the last two items in a series. Modern usage often omits the last comma, but doing so in a legally binding document can clearly have some serious and expensive consequences.

The lack of that single comma caused enough uncertainty to cause a court to rule in favor of the employees.

The court said that:

“the section of the law is ambiguous, even after we take account of the relevant interpretive aids and the law’s purpose and legislative history. For that reason, we conclude that, under Maine law, we must construe the exemption in the narrow manner that the driver’s favor, as doing so furthers the overtime law’s remedial purposes.”

But it was the attorney representing the class of employees who summed everything up best when he said:

“[Inclusion of] that comma would have sunk our ship.”

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