Absent Comma Sets Off $10 Million Overtime Pay Lawsuit

Grammar snobs have something to rejoice about today, though the reason is not a pleasant one for those on the short end of a new punctuation snafu.  Apparently, a single missing comma means that route delivery drivers for the Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine are entitled to overtime pay.

Let’s take a look at the Maine law regarding overtime pay for delivery drivers.  The law states that “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” do not qualify for overtime pay.

Well, the delivery drivers argue that the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution” means that this legislation only applies to the single activity of “packing” instead of “packing” and “distribution” as two individual activities. And since drivers only distribute and do not pack the trucks, they argue that they are, technically, eligible for overtime pay; and this overtime will backdate for many years.
Now, a district court had earlier ruled in favor of Oakhurst Dairy, but circuit judge David J Barron overturned that ruling with the argument: “We conclude that the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption.”

It is quite likely that Oakhurst Dairy will appeal.

Now, regardless of the end of this case, it is actually not the first time poor grammar (or maybe just lack of quality proofreading) would result in such drama. For example, US defense contractor Lockheed Martin once inked a deal to construct Hercules military transport aircraft—for an unnamed air force—the company knew that it would take many years to manufacture it. In essence, then, when Lockheed Martin drew up the contract in 1999 that the price of the plane would increase over time (accounting for inflation). Unfortunately, the company used a formula to calculate the price of each aircraft and that formula had a comma that was one decimal out of place.

This simple typo cost Lockheed Martin $70 million.