The cost of not paying attention

Reviewing detail
By Eleanor O'Neill, Student Blog

17 April 2017

It's the little things that matter, especially when it comes to writing legal documents. This became very clear to a dairy company in Maine, USA when the lack of an Oxford comma won a case for their delivery drivers.

The laws for overtime in Maine state that the following are not eligible for overtime pay:

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.

Employees of Oakhurst Dairy successfully argued in court that, without a comma separating the tasks, "packing for shipment or distribution" was listed as a single item, indicating that it was only packing staff who were subject to no overtime, with no mention of delivery drivers (who do not pack the items).

The company are now faced with a backdated overtime bill of about $10m (£8m) after an appeals court judge agreed that the drivers who distribute goods but don't pack them do indeed qualify for overtime.

Kudos is due to whoever spotted the grammatical oddity among what is no doubt a mountain of legal jargon.

What impact can one error have?

While the fault here lies with the original lawmaker's ambiguous use of language, it was someone else who ended up paying the (rather hefty) price.

With regards to this case, Circuit Judge David J. Barron wrote: "We conclude that the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. 

"And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption."

This suggests that the law may soon be amended, now that the loophole has been pointed out. A boon for Oakhurst drivers means a significant blow to the company's coffers due to a sense-check omission that began outwith the business. 

What can we learn from it?

In short, it pays to pay attention.

CAs are often required to sort through vast volumes of technical, legal and financial information. In these circumstances, it's easy to skim words and miss tiny 'errors', but this case proves that attention to detail could help or hinder the bottom line.   

This could relate to the reading of legislation, accounting standards or contracts with suppliers or customers (or even staff as in the Oakhurst case).

Your professional excellence stems from the valuable knowledge and insight gained through the CA qualification: make the most of it by always striving to be meticulous in your language and grammar.  

If you're someone who thinks good grammar is old fashioned and no longer required, think again (and consider having someone double check any critical documents!).

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