Sturley Delivers Berlingieri Lecture

Days after Texas Law’s 2024 Sunflower Ceremony, Professor Michael Sturley travelled from Austin to Gothenburg, Sweden, to address a gathering of the Comité Maritime International, a non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting the uniformity of maritime laws and their development across the globe. There, Sturley delivered the prestigious Berlingieri Lecture, as part of the CMI’s annual meetings. The CMI was established in 1897 and comprises the national maritime law associations of over 50 countries.

Michael Sturley speaking

With his May 23 address, Sturley became the first U.S. speaker and first full-time academic—as well as the youngest-ever speaker—chosen to present the Berlingieri Lecture. Previous Berlingieri lecturers have been either senior judges or past presidents of the CMI. But Sturley has his own longstanding involvement with the organization: he’s been going to CMI meetings for more than 30 years and is actively involved in several committees.

Sturley’s talk, “The Hague Rules at 100: Celebrating a Century of International Conventions Governing the Carriage of Goods by Sea,” provided a history and analysis of the Hague Rules, which were adopted in 1924 to provide a uniform legal regime to govern the carriage of goods by sea. Sturley explains that he discussed “what the law was like before the Hague Rules, how and why the Hague Rules were adopted, how successful they were, what problems needed to be addressed, and what lessons we can learn.”

The centenary of the Rules served as the focus for the entire conference. As Sturley noted in his remarks, “the Hague Rules were remarkably successful. Indeed, they continue—with some relatively modest amendments—to govern most of the world’s maritime trade today.”

For those unable to attend in person, Sturley’s lecture will be published in English in the Italian journal Il Diritto Marittimo (“Maritime Law”) and in translation in Droit Maritime Français (“French Maritime Law”), as well as in the CMI Yearbook. A scholarly article on which his lecture was based will be published in the November issue of the English journal Lloyd’s Maritime and Commercial Law Quarterly.

Delivering the talk was a meaningful honor for Sturley, who worked with the lecture’s namesake Francesco Berlingieri for decades. We spoke with Sturley to learn more.

How do the Hague Rules continue to play a role today? 

In 1936, the United States enacted the Hague Rules as the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act. That statute is still in force and still governs all litigation in this country for claims against shipowners for lost or damaged cargo.  Beyond this country, the original version of the Hague Rules or an amended version known as the Hague-Visby Rules still governs most of the world’s maritime trade.

Looking at the news headlines, the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore recently collapsed after it was struck by a Dali cargo ship. What do the Hague Rules say?

If cargo was damaged when the bridge collapsed on the ship, the Hague Rules—enacted in the United States as the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act—would govern the claim. But that would be a trivial part of the Dali litigation because the value of damaged cargo would be minimal when compared to the damage suffered by the bridge. Some containers were likely damaged when the bridge collapsed on the ship, but those losses would be measured in millions of dollars while the damage to the bridge is probably measured in billions of dollars.

That’s interesting. Taking a step back, when did you first become interested in maritime law?

As an undergraduate at Yale, I majored in English history. I thought it would be interesting to go live in England, having spent so much time studying the country, and that it would be more respectable to go as a student than to just go pub crawling for a couple of years! I consulted Guido Calabresi, who at the time was a professor at Yale Law School—and later became the dean of Yale Law School, then a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and now a senior judge still going strong in his 90s. He’s a force of nature!  

What did he recommend?

I considered going to Oxford and studying history or law. Guido advised me that the best course was not the one that that most students follow: Most students go to Oxford—if they’re lucky enough to go to Oxford at all—immediately after they graduate. And if they study law, they come back to the U.S. with advanced standing and they skip classes on contracts and torts because they studied that in England. Those students basically start a 2L education, which means they never get the introductory courses in U.S. law, which is kind of silly if you’re going to be a U.S. lawyer. So, Guido advised me, “Do your first year of U.S. law school, then go to England and get your English law degree as enrichment of your U.S. studies, then come back and finish your U.S. degree.” That’s what I did.

How did your time in England influence your scholarship?

When I was in England, I took International Trade. I wasn’t quite sure what the course was going to cover, but it sounded intriguing. The course turned out to be about half banking law and about half maritime law. I found it very interesting, and I’ve been doing it ever since. 

And in recognition of your area of expertise, you were selected to deliver the Berlingieri Lecture. Can you tell us about Francesco Berlingieri?

The CMI recently started having defined terms for president.  It used to be when you were elected president, you stayed president until you stepped down and someone else was elected. Francesco was the last of the indefinite presidents. The last CMI meeting that he was involved in was in 2017. He passed away shortly after that. The CMI established the Berlingieri Lecture to honor him.

How do you feel about being selected for the lecture?

I was certainly very pleased to be asked, since I worked with Francesco for many years. This is the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of an international convention formally known as the “International Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules of Law Relating to Bills of Lading,” but generally known as “the Hague Rules” because that’s less of a mouthful. I have been involved in research and writing on the international regulation of the carriage of goods in maritime commerce for many years—I first published on it in 1987.

Has your approach changed over the years of your scholarship?

When I first started working, I wrote letters, waited a week for them to get to Europe, and waited another week for the reply to come. I corresponded with Francesco when I first started this process. In 1995, I was one of the U.S. representatives on an international working group that Francesco was chairing on the subject, so I got to work more closely with him. And then starting in 1998, I was the rapporteur for the CMI working group to draft a new international convention to replace the Hague Rules, which eventually went to the U.N. Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL). I was the senior advisor on the U.S. delegation to UNCITRAL and Francesco was the was the head of the Italian delegation. So, I did a lot of work with Francesco there. Having worked so closely with Francesco for so many years, it’s a particular pleasure to be named the Berlingieri Lecturer.  

Meanwhile, maritime transport remains the largest method of carrying U.S. imports and exports, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Do you see the Hague Rules playing a role in the future of maritime law? 

There are more recent conventions that the United States could ratify to supersede the Hague Rules, but it has not yet done so. At least for the time being, therefore, the Hague Rules will continue to play a major role.  In any event, all of the newer conventions built on the experience of the Hague Rules, so they will continue to be influential, no matter what.

Category: Faculty News