Oxford Comma Case

Though he practices criminal defense, Attorney Henry Fasoldt has an interest in grammar, usage, and punctuation. In the world of punctuation debates, no issue is more controversial than the "Oxford Comma." It is of such note that Vampire Weekend wrote a song about it.

The Oxford Comma Decides Dairy Worker Class-Action Case

Recently, the decision regarding a class-action lawsuit was made based on the role of the Oxford comma. An Oxford comma refers to a comma that is placed immediately prior to the coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more terms. For many individuals, the Oxford comma has proven to be particularly decisive with some individuals insistent that the Oxford comma should be used and others opting to leave the Oxford comma out of sentences.

The Oakhurst Dairy Case

The case in question was heard by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals and involved $10 million that was potentially owed by Oakhurst Dairy, a dairy company located in Portland, Maine, to its drivers. Oakhurst Dairy was acquired in 2014 by Dairy Farmers of America. The case was initiated by three truck drivers who sought more than four years worth overtime pay that Oakhurst Dairy had denied the workers. Law in the state of Maine requires workers to be compensated at 1.5 times their normal rate for each hour worked after 40 hours. The exact law in question stated that overtime rules did not apply to the processing and distribution of “packing for shipment or distribution of agricultural produce, meat and fish products, and perishable foods.” Due to the lack of an Oxford comma in this law, it remains unclear whether the regulation in question intends to exempt the distribution of these three types of products or only packing for the shipping or distribution of these products. The drivers in question earned between $46,800 and $52,00 yearly without overtime and worked an additional 12 hours week overtime.

The Importance of the Oxford Comma in the Case

As a result of the applicable law, the decision of whether the Oakhurst workers were able to claim this compensation depended entirely on how the sentence which is missing the Oxford comma is read. If a comma was placed after “shipment”, the sentence in question would have more specifically exempted the distribution of perishable food. Without an Oxford comma, however, this sentence is more ambiguous in nature. Interestingly, the state of Maine’s Legislative Drafting Manual specifically advise lawmakers to refrain from using the Oxford comma but cautions that commas are frequently “misused and misunderstood”.

How the Case Was Decided

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately decided that the absence of an Oxford comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in favor of the Oakhurst workers. As a result of this decision, supporters of the Oxford comma claim that this case suggests the importance of the comma in these types of sentences. The attorney on behalf of the Oakhurst Dairy workers, however, has insisted that case does not support the use of the Oxford comma for everyone but merely the case of the workers. The Oakhurst Dairy case is not the first time that the Oxford comma has proved divisive in a case. Some other specific cases involving the Oxford comma include a 2006 dispute between Canadian companies, legislation involving an 1872 tariff, and decisions regarding the Second Amendment. Although rarely used in journalism, the Oxford comma is frequently used in academic publishing. While three Oakhurst Dairy workers initiated the case, approximately 75 Oakhurst Dairy workers will share the compensation that was awarded in the case.

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