How a Missing Comma Cost a Company $5 Million

How a Missing Comma Cost a Company $5 Million


This video was made possible by Brilliant. Learn something new everyday for 20% off by
being one of the first 200 to sign up at Brilliant.org/HAI. Welcome to Sesame Street, or whatever. Today’s lesson is that if you don’t got
a good grammar, don’t be writing legal documentations because these require specificionment. Exhibit A: Title 26, Chapter 7, Subchapter
3, Section 3, Subsection F of the American state of Maine’s laws. Subchapter 3 mainly has to do with overtime
work rules in the state—basically, any hours worked over 40 a week have to be paid at 1.5
times normal hourly pay—but subsection F contains exemptions to this rule. Now, let’s play spot the ambiguity: “The
overtime provision of this section does not apply to the canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: agricultural
produce; meat and fish products; and perishable foods.” So, wait, wait, wait. Is overtime exempted when packing for either
shipment or distribution or when packing for shipment or the distribution of. If it’s the second, then anyone distributing
these things, for example, truck drivers, would not be granted any overtime! This sentence is just begging for a good old
fashioned American lawsuit. Now, lexical nuance is tremendously important
as single characters can have tremendous consequences. Here’s approximately three examples. In the UK, public information on incorporated
companies is published by Companies House, a government agency. In 2009, Companies House, as they do, published
that Taylor and Sons was going bankrupt. Only problem, Taylor and Sons was a thriving
engineering firm that had existed for close to 150 years and employed over 250 people. Taylor and Son, on the other hand, a completely
different company, was really going bankrupt—it was just a one letter misspelling. All of Taylor and Sons customers, though,
saw that they were closing up shop and stopped doing business with them which caused them
to actually go bankrupt. The owner, of course, sued the UK government
and reached an undisclosed settlement of probably millions of dollars in 2016. The lesson learned? Have more sons because when it’s a family
business it’s not child labor, it’s chores. Example dos: In 1962, NASA launched Mariner
1—a spacecraft that was going to go say hi to Venus. At the time, most NASA computer code was written
out by hand and then, once complete, transcribed into a computer using punch-cards. Only problem, humans suck and one of the meatbags
forgot to enter this tiny overbar when transcribing the spacecraft’s guidance system. Now, I’m no doctor, but the internet tells
me that the lack of that overbar caused the spacecraft to overcorrect for velocity variations
which led to the spacecraft going wildly off course which led to NASA giving the Soviets
a big, “W,” in the space-race. Now, NASA’s all about having the public
embrace its technology but a few minutes after launch this spacecraft was on course to give
some Americans too close of an embrace. The guy in charge of the big red button pressed
the big red button to make the spacecraft explode. If you’re wondering, this meant that it
didn’t get to space. The cost of this transcription mistake? $150 million. That’s more than the average American makes
in a year. Example number C. Back in the early days of
the United States the government figured out that it needed money in order to do stuff
so it started to impose tariffs on imports. After the civil war, this problem of needing
money to do stuff became even worse—because of war debts, of course. Therefore, they updated this document outlining
American import tariffs. One edit was in a section of exemptions one
of which was, “fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation
or cultivation,” meaning fruit could enter the US tax-free. This was a mistake. It was meant to say, “fruit-plants,” as
in, the plants on which fruit grows. The US government tried to enforce the intended
meaning of the sentence to which fruit-importers responded with some lawsuits and in the end,
the US government lost and was forced to refund, adjusted for inflation, about $40 million
in tariffs which accounted for almost 0.7% of the entire national budget. The lesson learned? Categorize your fruit as musical instruments
in order to get lower import tariffs. But back to Maine’s modern-day comma snafu. Oakhurst Dairy is a company based in Portland,
Maine that produces and distributes milk which, based off testing, I can confirm is a perishable
good. Therefore, the company looked at this sentence
and figured they didn’t have to pay overtime while the drivers looked at the very same
sentence and figured they did deserve overtime so five drivers sued the company for their
either rightfully or unrightfully deserved overtime pay. The drivers and company went to trial and
the court said no, the drivers didn’t deserve overtime pay because look at this sentence—it
very clearly lays out an exemption! The drivers appealed, the case went to an
appeals court, and then the judge dropped this thick 29 page ruling analyzing the single
sentence and eloquently saying to the drivers, “fair point, you win.” As a result, Oakhurst Dairy had to pay about
$5 million in overtime fees. They did win a partial victory, though, as
soon after, Maine dropped a few of these bad boys into their laws—semicolons. The good news is that, unlike the grammatical
heathens in the rest of the English-speaking world, most American states now require the
use of the Oxford comma in government documents to cut down on ambiguity. Now, learning that using only one comma in
a list of three is a primitive relic of a time when we threw buckets of poop out the
window is easy. Learning multi-variable calculus, though,
is tougher but for that, there’s Brilliant. Brilliant has mastered the art of teaching
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3 Comments

  1. Half as Interesting says:

    2-parter:

    1) If you want to be a cool, hip and well-dressed Half as Interesting viewer, you should suggest a topic here and if we use it, you'll get a free HAI t-shirt to put on your body: https://www.halfasinteresting.com/suggest

    2) Real Life Lore needs to stop stealing my upload time.

  2. Someone on the internet says:

    And that is why you should learn your grammar.

  3. Joseph O'yek says:

    Blackjacks, and hookers…

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