An Oxford comma ended up costing a Maine dairy processing company $5 million via a class action lawsuit settlement with their drivers. The dairy admits no wrongdoing and sets up a fund to pay workers who won their overtime lawsuit appeal, which hinged on a state law’s punctuation.
The suit, filed in 2014, alleged that drivers for Oakhurst were eligible for overtime pay that they never received. The dairy, which in early 2014 was sold to a farmers cooperative by the Maine family that had owned it for 93 years, argued that the wording of a state law meant the drivers weren’t eligible for overtime pay.
But the lack of a comma in the state law ultimately tilted the suit in favor of the drivers.
Oakhurst did not admit to wrongdoing as part of the settlement, which was filed Thursday in federal court. The deal still needs to be approved by a federal judge before it goes into effect.
The settlement calls for the five drivers who led the suit, called the “named plaintiffs,” to receive $50,000 each from the settlement fund. Other drivers will have to file claims to get a share of the fund. They will be paid a minimum of $100 or the amount of overtime pay they were owed, based on their work records from May 2008 until August 2012.
The settlement says about 127 drivers are covered by the agreement.
A Maine federal court initially ruled that the drivers weren’t entitled to overtime under a state law that says overtime is not required for employees engaged in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” a handful of products, including perishable products such as milk, cheese and other dairy goods.
The drivers appealed that ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, where Judge David Barron issued a 29-page ruling that explored the use of the Oxford comma, also called the serial comma, the state Legislature’s law-drafting manual and gerunds, which are nouns formed from verbs by adding “ing.” The court also ruled that, in cases of confusion over a law’s wording, it should be “liberally construed.”
The lower court judge had ruled that the law exempted the drivers from overtime because they were involved in the shipment and distribution of the products. But Barron said the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution of” meant both phrases referred back to “packing for” – as in “packing for shipment or packing for distribution.” Because the drivers deliver the products but don’t pack them, they weren’t covered by the Maine exemption to overtime pay.
“For want of a comma, we have this case,” Barron began his opinion in the 3-0 decision of a panel of appeals court judges.
The March 2017 ruling sent the case back to the federal District Court in Maine. That opened the door to the settlement because the appeals court had determined that the drivers were entitled to overtime pay.
Started in 1921, Oakhurst Dairy was formerly a family owned company prior to being bought by Dairy Farmers of America in January 2014. The lawsuit was against the previous owners of Oakhurst.
Jeffrey Neil Young, one of the lawyers representing the drivers, said he was “pleased that the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all parties” and declined to comment further.