A Sea Change in Creditor Priorities

This Article argues that the operation of maritime law undermines a primary justification for creditor priorities under U.S. law. Under current law, when a debtor becomes insolvent, its secured creditors will be paid the full amount of their debt to the extent of their security interest, even if that leaves nothing to pay unsecured creditors. This is controversial with respect to involuntary unsecured creditors, particularly those with tort claims against the debtor. Defenders of this scheme of priorities have argued that allowing greater priority to involuntary creditors would hinder the availability or increase the cost of credit. However, involuntary creditors have long enjoyed priority over secured creditors under maritime law, and it does not appear that firms subject to maritime law have experienced these effects. Experience with this priority scheme under maritime law may provide support for efforts to reform current U.S. law to give greater priority to involuntary creditors more generally.