Who Gives a Fuss about an Oxford Comma?
Some judges do. And a missing comma might cost $10 million.
By: C. Reynolds LeBlanc
Let’s take a trip back to middle school for a quick grammar review. Before I was a lawyer, I taught English. Diligently, I taught my students the importance of proper comma usage but never imagined that the fate of a multi-million dollar lawsuit would rest on how this simple mark on the page can change the meaning of a sentence.
As I taught my students, the Oxford comma comes into play when you have a series of words, phrases, or clauses. Take a look at the previous sentence. I used an Oxford comma. It is the one between “phrases” and “or.” People who like the Oxford comma say that it makes it easier for the reader to understand what the author is trying to say.
Not everyone thinks the comma is necessary. Every now and then, a student, whose curiosity would override their fear of appearing “too interested” in grammar, would ask, “Why do you even need a comma if you can tell what the author is trying to say without it?” It is a good question, and grammar nerds have been arguing about its answer for more than a century.
But the Oxford comma can make a dramatic difference. Consider these two sentences:
Darren is excited about his vacation with his wife, his best friend, and his cousin.
Darren is excited about his vacation with his wife, his best friend and his cousin.
Here, the Oxford comma makes all the difference. It distinguishes between (1) a nice vacation Darren will have with three other people and (2) an awkward situation where Darren should be advised that he is living a weird, taboo lifestyle and that his marriage to his best friend and cousin is absolutely null under La. C.C. art. 94. While we can safely assume that Darren was excited about a group trip, this example makes the point.
In O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, 851 F. 3d 69 (1 Cir. 3/13/17), a federal court refused to make a similar assumption, and it might cost more than $10 million, all because a statute did not use an Oxford comma. In O’Connor, dairy truck drivers filed a lawsuit to recover overtime pay. In Maine, overtime pay law does not apply to “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” food.
The defendant (the Oakhurst dairy) argued that the case should be dismissed because the drivers were involved in the “distribution of” food and were not entitled to overtime pay. The district court agreed and dismissed the case.
On appeal, the drivers countered that because there was no Oxford comma after “shipment,” the statute only applied to the act of “packing” food (for shipment or distribution), which they did not do. An Oxford comma would have made the dairy’s argument correct and the case would have been dismissed. However, no comma was used and the federal court of appeals found that the statute was ambiguous. The case was sent back to district court, where the dairy may now get squeezed for someone else’s $10 million comma omission.
Maybe the Maine legislators should have paid a little more attention in class.