Words have meaning (including incorrectly used words that can make you look dumb). And so does punctuation: The lack of one Oxford comma in a Maine state law just cost Oakhurst Dairy $5 million in overtime pay.

First some background. An Oxford comma is a comma that precedes "and" or "or" in a list of three or more words in a sentence.

This sentence uses an Oxford comma: "The most important people in my life are my parents, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson." 

This sentence does not: "The most important people in my life are my parents, Bill Gates and Richard Branson."  Not using the Oxford comma makes it sound like Gates and Branson are your parents, but while possibly confusing -- especially to Bill and Sir Richard -- it's not a big deal. 

A bigger deal was the suit filed by five Oakhurst Dairy truck drivers claiming they were owed unpaid overtime. The company argued that the wording of the applicable state law meant the drivers were not eligible for overtime pay.

Maine's labor laws state that anyone who works more than 40 hours a week is entitled to 1.5X pay -- except for certain exemptions. Here's the applicable portion of the law:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce;

  2. Meat and fish product; and

  3. Perishable foods

Sounds clear cut... but take a look at the first sentence. The suit argued that since  "packing for shipment" and "distribution" were not separated by a comma, that made them a single activity exempt from overtime pay. 

The drivers certainly distribute perishable food, but they don't pack it. 

Which means they are not exempt from overtime pay. "Sure, we distribute it -- but we don't pack it."

29 pages later, Judge David Barron's 2017 ruling agreed with the drivers, sending the case back to the federal District Court and opening the door to the settlement the company filed last week.

Under the terms of the agreement, the five "named" plaintiffs (those who led the suit) will each receive $50,000. Any of the approximately 127 drivers involved who file claims will receive a minimum of $100 or the amount of overtime pay owed from between May 2008 and August 2012.

The moral of the story? Words matter. So does punctuation.

That's why Maine has since edited the law, using semi-colons instead of commas.

Which came a little too late for Oakhurst Dairy -- but not for the drivers.