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Drivers win $5 million in dispute with US company over missing comma

MAINE, US: A dairy in Maine has settled an overtime dispute worth $5 million with its drivers after some of the employees successfully sued the company over a missing comma in state law.

The case began in 2014 after a few truck drivers sued the dairy company in Maine, the most northeastern US state, for four years’ worth of overtime – which they claim had been denied to them after a missing Oxford comma provided uncertainty around legislation.

On March 13, last year the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled 3-0 that workers were entitled to up to $10 million in overtime back pay.

The reason was a missing Oxford comma — the final comma used before a conjunction — in state law. In this case, the conjunction was the word “or.”

Judge David Barron wrote at the beginning of his 29-page ruling: “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

No Oxford comma was used in a statute listing of conditions when overtime pay does not apply: “…marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” products. Without the comma, the drivers argued that it reads as a single act, and since they didn’t actually do any packing, they shouldn’t have been exempt from overtime pay.

The 127 drivers filed a class-action suit in 2014.

In the settlement, Oakhurst did not admit to wrongdoing but believed further litigation would be protracted and expensive. The settlement was filed Thursday in federal court and must be approved by a federal judge before it goes into effect.

The five drivers who led the suit, called the “named plaintiffs,” will receive $50,000 each from the settlement fund. Other drivers will have to file claims to get a share of the fund, and 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.

In early 2014, the dairy was sold to a farmers’ cooperative by the Maine family that had owned it for 93 years.

After the appeals court ruling edited this exemption, the Maine Legislature replaced the punctuation with semicolons.

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