Cases of Costly Commas

3 min read

Vintage photo of courtroom

Do you believe in the power of the Oxford comma? Think it’s a waste of a character? Or maybe you’re one of those people who figures there are better things to do than get emotional about it. Regardless, there’s one place its existence—or lack of it—matters: the courts.

Because one comma can cost you millions.

An Exceptional Exemption

That’s what happened to Oakhurst Dairy in 2018 when the absence of an Oxford comma in Maine state law cost the business $5 million in time-and-a-half overtime pay to the company’s drivers. Each of the five drivers who brought the suit was awarded $50,000; the other 122 drivers were allowed to file claims for their share.

Maine’s legislature has since rewritten the law using semicolons. But back then, an unpunctuated conjunction required the drivers to receive overtime pay for every hour worked over 40, except:

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

  1. Agricultural produce;
  2. Meat and fish products; and 
  3. Perishable foods.”

That commaless conjunction “packing for shipment or distribution of…” was the source of the dispute Oakhurst eventually lost. The court ruled that it wasn’t clear whether the law exempted the distribution of agricultural produce, meat and fish products, and perishable foods, or just the packing for the shipment or distribution of them. An Oxford comma after the word “shipment” would have made the meaning of the sentence clear and not open to interpretation.

The $5 million settlement also closed the case and, with that, any chance of it making its way to the Supreme Court. There, the highest court in the land could have weighed in on the Oxford comma debate, thrilling grammarians everywhere.

There have been more costly comma debates in the courts, too.

Tariff Law

As part of its reporting on the dairy debacle, the BBC researched the matter and discovered that comma debates have endured for nearly 150 years. In 1872, an American tariff law with an unwanted comma—but not an unwanted Oxford comma—cost taxpayers nearly $2 million. Originally drafted in 1870, The United States Tariff Act, allowed “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” to be exempt from tariffs. But when the law was revised two years later, a comma was added between “fruit” and “plants,” allowing all fruit products to be imported without tariffs.

That problem was eventually fixed by an act of the U.S. Congress.

Life or Death

But the cost of a misplaced comma hasn’t always been financial. The BBC also discovered a British death penalty trial in 1916 when a misplaced comma ended someone’s life.

Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist, was hanged in 1916 under the 1351 Treason Act for inciting Irish prisoners of war, held in Germany, to fight the British. The debate over whether Casement was guilty apparently hinged on the use of a comma in the act and, without it, he would have been innocent. Although Casement’s attorney argued that a comma shouldn’t be a determiner in matters of life or death, he lost. The court found Casement guilty and he was hanged.

While it’s unlikely a missing or misplaced comma will turn into a life, death, or million-dollar situation, it’s also not out of the question. So the next time you’re deciding whether to use a semicolon, comma, or no mark at all, maybe you’ll remember these cases and consult the nearest grammar guide. See what I did there?