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A missing comma resulted in a group of dairy drivers getting $5 million

Unclear grammar can literally cost your company millions of dollars. Just ask Oakhurst Dairy in Maine. According to court documents filed on Thursday, the Maine-based dairy company said it was settling its comma dispute with its drivers for $5 million dollars.

The case, over on a missing Oxford comma in Maine overtime pay’s law, captured national attention this past March. Drivers originally filed a class-action lawsuit in 2014 that sought more than $10 million in overtime pay, arguing that the missing punctuation mark was on their side.

According to Maine state law, the following activities were not eligible 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 argued that the “packing for shipment or distribution of” was defining the single activity of packing — meaning, they were spared from the overtime pay exception list because drivers distributed food but they didn’t pack them. Oakhurst Dairy, meanwhile, argued that the law was taking “distribution” as a separate activity, so it did include the drivers in the overtime exception list. On March 13, a federal court reversed a lower court decision and sided with the truck drivers, saying that there was enough punctuation ambiguity in the drivers’ favor.

Unclear grammar has cost companies millions

Oxford comma proponents argue that if the law had a serial comma, or Oxford comma, after “shipment,” it would have been clear that “distribution” was written to be a separate item in the law’s list.

Perhaps sensing more grammar-related disputes on the horizon, Maine is taking no chances and has removed any ambiguity in its overtime pay exception list. Now, the Maine law has added semicolons to separate each of the activities not eligible in its list:

“The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”

This is not the first time that unclear communication in words has spelled financial disaster for a company. In one typo horror story, a 124-year-old company was dissolved after U.K. government agency Companies House wrongly stated that Taylor & Sons Ltd. had “gone into liquidation” in 2009. In fact, it was Taylor & Son Ltd. without the “s” that had gone into liquidation. The error was corrected in three days, but by that time, orders had been canceled, contracts had been lost and credit had been withdrawn.

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