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Downhill Drama: Unraveling the Gwyneth Paltrow Ski Accident Saga

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April 12, 2023 Personal Injury

While we hate to admit it as we are making smooth turns on groomers or floating through fresh powder, skiing is an inherently dangerous activity. Most of us who have participated in mountain sports have had at least one fall that has ended our day early whether there was a significant injury or not. Usually when we get hurt, it only involves us falling by hitting an ice patch, catching an edge, or any other of the hundreds of ways that we can fall without actually making contact with anything or anyone. A few of us have had the unfortunate experience of an on-hill collision or been clipped in the lift line by an out-of-control skier or snowboarder. When the latter happens, and there is significant injury, the law has given us a way to seek damages.

With such a high-profile ski accident in the headlines, why don’t we dive into the case and look at some important information regarding laws around skiing, duties of skiers, and negligence.

Sanderson vs. Paltrow: A Celebrity Ski Accident in 2016 

Retired optometrist Terry Sanderson sued actress Gwyneth Paltrow for $300,000, claiming to have sustained broken ribs and a concussion when Paltrow collided with him on a ski run in Park City, Utah in 2016. Paltrow has countersued for $1, claiming that it was Sanderson who ran into her. There are no known videos or eyewitnesses to the collision involving the parties. (When there is a countersuit for nominal damages such as $1, the general idea is to not only prove that there was no negligence, but that the other party was in fact negligent. If the countersuing party did not sustain any significant injury that would warrant a larger amount, the $1 is more symbolic than anything else.). After relatively quick deliberation, the jury found that Paltrow was not at fault.

The Gwyneth Paltrow Vindication

Ski accident In a unanimous decision, the jury awarded Paltrow the $1 she sought in damages which reflects a symbolic victory in showing that for her, it wasn’t about the money by refusing to settle and taking it to trial. She stated, “I felt that acquiescing to a false claim compromised my integrity.”

But why did the jury believe Paltrow instead of Sanderson? Well, according to Sanderson it was because of Paltrow’s celebrity status. He believes that “you get some assumed credibility from being a famous person.” Could that be the case here? It certainly could be, but let’s say it wasn’t the case and the jury deliberated in Paltrow’s favor after reviewing the evidence and being what we all love to call jurors as finders of fact: reasonable.

As many attorneys do, the attorneys in this case painted their respective clients in a favorable light while nitpicking unfavorable aspects of the opposing party. Here, this included both sides attacking each other’s extravagant lifestyles that include lots of travel. Sanderson’s friend who was nearby the collision testified that Paltrow was at fault. Sanderson’s daughter testified about how Sanderson’s injuries affected him personally and how his personality changed due to the brain injury he sustained in the collision. Paltrow testified on her own behalf recalling being hit from behind and hearing a grunting sound. Even an online sleuth found a group chat conversation including Sanderson, his friend, and others where they discussed the accident, but didn’t actually mention Paltrow by name until days later. This evidence alone leaves a jury with the very difficult task of deciding which party to believe, where celebrity may have some influence one way or another more than it should. This is where the expert witnesses come in to try and shine a brighter light on what happened on that ski slope back in 2016.

The Experts

Sanderson’s attorneys called on medical experts to try and persuade jurors that the collision left Sanderson with irreparable, life-altering injuries. Dr. Wendell Gibby, a radiologist, testified that brain images of Sanderson suggested that the head trauma was likely caused by a skier crashing into him. He also said that the rib fractures certainly corroborate that there was enough force to cause a head injury.

Dr. Samuel Goldstein, a neuropsychologist, in explaining the trajectory of Sanderson’s brain and psychological health, testified that Sanderson was experiencing an “acute rapid downturn.” Further, Dr. Goldstein suggested that if it were not for the accident, Sanderson would not be experiencing the current cognitive and brain issues he is struggling with today.

Dr. Alina Fong, a concussion specialist, testified that Sanderson is still recovering from a brain injury from the collision that occurred seven years ago.

Paltrow’s attorneys introduced a biomechanical engineer, Dr. Irving Scher. Dr. Scher was brought in as a snow sports expert. He used a white erase board to draw diagrams and equations while testifying that Paltrow’s version of what happened is consistent with the laws of physics.

Carl Black, a radiologist, testified that Sanderson’s cognitive decline and other issues related to his brain health are explainable by normal aging patterns. He said that, “we’re all deteriorating to some degree or other every day we live.”

Dr. Steven Edgley reviewed Sanderson’s medical records. Dr. Edgley found that before the accident, Sanderson had suffered a stroke in which he lost his eyesight in his right eye. He found evidence of a microvascular disease in Sanderson’s brain. Finally, he found evidence of hydrocephalus which is another neurological issue. Again, these were all present prior to the accident. Further, Paltrow’s medical team found other issues such as a prior knee injury, incidents of Sanderson walking into walls, hearing problems, and limited field of vision.

These are just a few select experts that testified to the jury. When there is a he-said/she-said case with no actual visual evidence, a jury must rely on experts to try to deduce whether there was negligence or not. In this case, Sanderson’s experts testified to the extent of injuries while Paltrow’s experts testified that his injuries were mostly pre-existing. Scientific evidence was provided by experts on both sides to break down whose version of events was more scientifically likely.

In the end, the jury listened to the evidence and went into a private room together to discuss. Two hours later they emerged with a verdict, having decided that more likely than not, Paltrow’s version of events is closest to what actually transpired, and she should not be held liable for negligence.

If you are involved in a collision while on a ski slope or at a resort and are injured, or if you come across an injured skier, it is extremely important to gather as much evidence as you can from the area. Evidence such as ski conditions, information from potential witnesses, and anything that can show that there was a negligent party, will all be valuable if any sort of lawsuit is filed. If you are the victim of a ski slope collision and would like to speak with an attorney about your rights, call our Denver Personal Injury Attorneys at 303-355-7202 today for a free consultation.

-Graham Black