Among the creditors who suffered most, car-accident victims represent a distinct mold. Unlike banks and bondholders, this group didn’t choose to extend credit to the auto makers. As consumers, they became creditors only after suffering injuries in vehicles they purchased.

“This was not a normal case. The government was deciding who was going to be taken care of and who was not,” said David Skeel, a University of Pennsylvania law school professor and bankruptcy expert who has testified before Congress on the auto bailouts. Even if the auto makers had legal rights to leave behind product-liability claims, “there is a deep unfairness,” he said. “It would have been easy enough to set something aside for them.”