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The $10 Million Lawsuit That Hinges On An Oxford Comma

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The $10 Million Lawsuit That Hinges On An Oxford Comma

The $10 Million Lawsuit That Hinges On An Oxford Comma

The $10 Million Lawsuit That Hinges On An Oxford Comma

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For people interested in grammar, there is no fiercer debate over the necessity — or not — of the Oxford comma. It is the final comma in a list of items. A $10 million lawsuit hinges on an Oxford comma.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

For grammar nerds, the debate about the Oxford comma is a serious thing. It is the last comment in a list, the one right before and or or. Take this sentence. I like my job, eating and ice skating. If I don't put a comma between eating and ice skating, it sounds like eating and ice skating are my job. Some people think the Oxford comma is redundant. Other people say it's necessary. Noel King from our PLANET MONEY podcast has the story of a $10 million lawsuit that hinges on an Oxford comma.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Chris O'Connor worked for 11 years as a delivery driver for a dairy company in Maine. On an average day, he'd drive 150 to 300 miles delivering milk all along the way.

CHIS O'CONNOR: I actually did the math. I averaged it out that we move anywheres (ph) between 14,000 to 16,000 pounds of milk a day.

KING: That would take Chris 12, 14, 16 hours a day. But he was salaried. He was only paid for eight. And then one day a couple of years ago, he was making a delivery in a Hannaford supermarket. He was talking to a guy in the stockroom.

O'CONNOR: The guy asked me, how many hours are you working this week, Chris? You know, and I said, oh, probably 60 hours this week. And he's like, oh, look at that - overtime pay. And I was like, no, I don't get overtime. I'm salary.

KING: And the guy said, well, you better not let the state of Maine find out. That's illegal. Chris looked it up. Maine state law says if you work more than 40 hours a week, you earn overtime. So he called a lawyer. Maine state law has some exceptions to the rule. There are certain people who don't make overtime, including people who ship or handle perishable goods like milk. And here is where that all-important comma comes in.

The statute says workers who do not get overtime are those involved in, quote, "the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment - no Oxford comma here - or distribution of perishable foods." Chris' lawyer looked at that and thought, well, it's unclear. Is it packing for shipment or distribution, or is it packing for shipment, or distribution?

His argument - distributors like Chris aren't on that list of people who don't get overtime because there's no comma. He filed a class action suit on behalf of about 75 drivers asking for around $10 million in unpaid overtime. Last week, a judge said the punctuation of the statute is ambiguous. The suit can proceed. The dairy company didn't respond to a request for comment, but Chris' lawyer, Jeffery Young, is thrilled. And yes, he sees the humor in it.

JEFFERY YOUNG: My first boss always used to say to us, common sense ain't so common. So my summary of this case is, comma sense ain't so common.

KING: That's pretty good (laughter).

YOUNG: I think it's pretty good.

KING: Chris, the delivery driver, says he's always been a fan of the Oxford comma.

O'CONNOR: I don't know if you've heard of the book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves."

KING: "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" (laughter) - I do know that book, yeah.

O'CONNOR: I have it actually sitting right in front of me. My kids went and grabbed it, and they're going, this is what they're talking about, isn't it dad?

KING: It is. Or as the judge wrote in his opinion, for want of a comma, we have this case. Noel King, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GORDON GOODWIN'S BIG PHAT BAND SONG, "ON GREEN DOLPHIN STREET")

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