Truck Drivers Awarded $5M in Oxford Comma Lawsuit

Dairy drivers win class-action lawsuit against oakhurst dairy for overtime pay due to the lack of a comma. Learn more about the Oxford comma lawsuit here.

In a seemingly absurd legal move, delivery drivers filed suit against a Portland, ME dairy company in 2017 for unpaid overtime under the state of Maine’s overtime law, suggesting that a missing comma in the state’s legal statutes entitled them to additional wages based on their job descriptions. Explore details of the lawsuit and learn about the use of the Oxford comma below.

The Court Case

In O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, 851 F.3d 69 (1st Cir. 2017), 127 dairy delivery drivers filed a class-action lawsuit against their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for unpaid overtime wages. The drivers stated that they were denied more than four years of overtime pay as a result of the way Maine law was written and could be interpreted. The claim hinged on the lack of a comma, which made it seem like two items in a list that were intended to be separate was, in fact, not separate at all and part of the same phrase.

Initially, the state’s district court issued a summary judgment in favor of Oakhurst, which the drivers appealed. Then, in 2017, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed this decision, deciding to hear the case. Finally, in 2018, a judge ruled in favor of the drivers, awarding them $5M in unpaid overtime compensation.

The law states that agricultural produce employers in Maine are responsible for paying overtime for “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of produce, meat and fish products, and perishable foods.” But the lack of a comma after “shipment” in this case can be inferred to mean that “distribution” is a component of and not separate from the “packing” process. If this is true, then the exemption doesn’t apply to delivery drivers whose sole job is distributing the goods. “For want of a comma, we have this case,” First Circuit Judge David Barron said.

While the lawsuit may have initially seemed frivolous, court documents suggest the dairy drivers were right about how the law was written and how it could be interpreted. Even though Oakhurst Dairy agreed to pay the $5M settlement to the dairy drivers who filed the claim, the company maintained that it did not violate the law and no fault on their part existed.

The Serial Comma

The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma, is a comma between the second-to-last item and the final item in a list. Proponents of serial commas argue that the punctuation mark helps to clarify a list of items, while critics suggest that it’s unnecessary and burdensome.

Examples of a Serial Comma

Here are some examples of how an Oxford or Harvard comma is traditionally used in written text to separate items in a list from one another:

  • “I went to the store to pick up milk, eggs, and bread.”
  • “Will you invite Harry, Brandon, and Mike to my birthday party?”
  • “Erin was cast as an actor in a play with her boyfriend, a doctor, and a criminal.”

Examples of a Regular Comma

Here are the same phrases written with a regular comma:

  • “I went to the store to pick up milk, eggs and bread.”
  • “Will you invite Harry, Brandon and Mike to my birthday party?”

In the above examples, it’s easy to tell that the second and last items on the list are separate entries. However, sometimes using a regular comma in this manner obscures the meaning of the phrase, as it did in the Oxford comma lawsuit. While a writer can add a serial comma here for cadence, they can also omit it without altering the meaning of a sentence, particularly if the publication they are writing for discourages the use of the Oxford comma.

In the next example, the lack of a comma can be interpreted to suggest that the last two items in a list are conjoined.

  • “Erin was cast as an actor in a play with her boyfriend, a doctor and a criminal.”

In this phrase, the missing comma makes it unclear whether Erin was cast as an actor in a play with three people — her boyfriend, a doctor, and a criminal — or if Erin was cast in a play with her boyfriend, who was both a doctor and a criminal. This critical difference makes the presence of a simple punctuation mark like the serial comma essential. Otherwise, the meaning of a sentence may be entirely misconstrued.

What Writers Should Know About the Serial Comma

Style guides that use a Harvard comma: The Oxford University Press
It’s always best for writers to identify the style guide they should be using for a piece of content and determine whether the use of the Oxford comma is allowed

Commas are used when two independent clauses have been connected with a conjunction, such as “and,” “or,” “so,” etc. They are designed to clarify the meaning of a written text, mainly when ideas are connected or in the form of a list. But comma usage is heavily criticized in the literary world.

Many scholars disagree on the best way to use commas and how not to avoid confusion and misunderstandings. The serial comma has faced especially harsh critique, with some style books omitting it entirely from any content distributed by the publication. Therefore, it’s always best for writers to identify the style guide they should be using for a piece of content and determine whether the use of the Oxford comma is allowed.

Style Guides That Use a Harvard Comma

Style Guides That Don’t

Final Thoughts About the Oxford Comma Lawsuit

The Oxford comma lawsuit proves why comma use isn’t something that can be disregarded as minuscule or unimpactful. On the contrary, this little punctuation mark significantly influences the way readers understand different sentences and what meaning they ascribe to the words writers choose to use. In most cases, using a serial comma is better than not using one, except for content for publications like the New York Times or the Associated Press, which do not use the Oxford comma.

Are you interested in learning more? Check out our guide to grammar and punctuation!

FAQs About the Oxford Comma Lawsuit

When should semicolons be used instead of serial commas?

A semicolon is traditionally used in place of a comma or a period when the writer would ordinarily use a period but wants to keep the ideas connected. Neither a comma nor a period is appropriate in these circumstances, so a semicolon is generally used instead.

How can mistakes like a missing comma be avoided?

Writers can avoid confusion and mistakes by defaulting to the use of the Oxford comma, except when the client’s editorial guidelines or stylebook discourage using a serial comma. In most situations, even publications that warn against its use allow writers to put an Oxford comma before the last item in a list when the sentence is unclear or ambiguous without it, as was the case for O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy.

Using a grammar checker or grammar editing tool is an easy and effective way to check the grammar of written content before submitting it to a publication, whether online or off. You can also print out a piece of content and read it aloud, looking for sections of text that are choppy or don’t flow well.

What is the best online grammar editing tool?

Many writers use and trust Grammarly for online grammar editing. It can be easily installed as a browser extension, allowing you to check the grammar of content everywhere, even in website form fields and text boxes.

  • Meet Rachael, the editor at Become a Writer Today. With years of experience in the field, she is passionate about language and dedicated to producing high-quality content that engages and informs readers. When she's not editing or writing, you can find her exploring the great outdoors, finding inspiration for her next project.