Canada, English Grammar and Usage, Money, Screw-Ups

Comma Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon

comma missing million dollars.JPGThe lawyers among you should know: Little things matter a lot.
Earlier this month, we told you about the missing “L” that cost a county $40,000. But $40K is chump change compared to the million dollars that turns upon an allegedly misplaced comma:

[A] dispute between Rogers Communications of Toronto, Canada’s largest cable television provider, and a telephone company in Atlantic Canada, Bell Aliant, is over the phone company’s attempt to cancel a contract governing Rogers’ use of telephone poles. But the argument turns on a single comma in the 14-page contract. The answer is worth 1 million Canadian dollars ($888,000 U.S.).

Citing the “rules of punctuation,” Canada’s telecommunications regulator recently ruled that the comma allowed Bell Aliant to end its five-year agreement with Rogers at any time with notice. Rogers argues that pole contracts run for five years and automatically renew for another five years, unless a telephone company cancels the agreement before the start of the final 12 months.

(Gavel bang: blah blah blog.)
Canadian lawyers are being hired in significant numbers by major American law firms. They claim it’s because of their superior training and lawyering skills. But Canucks make drafting mistakes too, eh?
Now it’s time for you to play judge. Here’s the contractual language at issue:

“This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

The regulator concluded that the second comma meant that the part of the sentence describing the one-year notice for cancellation applied to both the five-year term as well as its renewal. Therefore, the regulator found, the phone company could escape the contract after as little as one year.

What do you think? We don’t have a strong view. (But the fact that Rogers is attempting to bolster its position by relying upon the French version of the contract makes us lean in favor of Bell Aliant.)
The Comma That Costs 1 Million Dollars (Canadian) [New York Times via How Appealing]
Million-Dollar Comma May Aid Canadian Company [NPR via bla blah blog]
Why is grammar so very important? [blah blah blog]
Earlier: Our Kingdom for an “L”
Didn’t Get a Biglaw Job? Blame Canada!

(hidden for your protection)

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