Missing comma crucial in $10 million lawsuit

All hail the Oxford comma

All hail the Oxford comma. Dave Bezaire CC BY-SA 2.0

Sorry Internet, you'll have to find another piece of punctuation to argue over.

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.

We'll get back to that in a second.

She told the station that "the other option is we sue (Trump) at the WTO", adding that "it wouldn't be the first time that Mr. Trump has lost in the courts". Oakhurst Dairy said the phrase refers to packing and to distribution.

A federal appeals court decided this week to keep alive an Oakhurst Dairy drivers' lawsuit seeking more than $10 million in overtime.

Not so fast, countered the drivers. Since they drive the trucks and don't pack anything, the drivers argued, they are not included among the list of exempted jobs.

Had there been a comma between "shipment" and "or distribution" these activities would have simply been a continuation of the list, each a separate activity exempt from overtime.

Circuit Judge David Barron wrote: "For want of a comma, we have this case".

You may not care about this exemption in Maine's overtime law, but you do, for example, care about how employees read and interpret your employment policies.

Aha! Case closed ... or not.

The manual does clarify that caution should be taken if an item in the series is modified.

Meaning, without a serial comma, both "shipment" and "distribution" easily can be seen as modifiers for "packing for ..." "Distribution" is a noun, and syntactically it belongs with "shipment", also a noun, as an object of the preposition "for".

ME law requires workers to be paid 1.5 times their normal rate for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carves out some exemptions.

The truck drivers reportedly claimed they worked an average of 12 extra hours a week, according to their lawyer David Webbert. "And because, under ME law, ambiguities in the state's wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial goal, we adopt the drivers' narrower reading of the exemption".

In O'Connor, the court concluded that its absence was material to whether a delivery driver qualified for an overtime exemption.

Enter the appeals court judges. It reversed a lower court decision.

But when that's all said and done, a timeless lesson will remain: Language without proper punctuation is like a highway with improperly placed road signs. There's a long-running debate over whether it's proper to include that last comma in a list. "It's about communicating well".

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