Gwyneth Paltrow, the Academy Award-winning actress perhaps best known for her role as Iron Man’s love interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series of films, is being sued in a Utah court by a retired optometrist over a 2016 ski crash at the Deer Valley resort.
Paltrow, 50, is also countersuing Terry Sanderson over that incident in a trial that begins on Tuesday in the Third District Court in Park City.
What’s going on?
The Utah doctor filed his lawsuit against the actress and several others in January 2019, alleging her actions were negligent and resulted in “permanent traumatic brain injury, 4 broken ribs, pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, emotional distress and disfigurement.” Paltrow countersued Sanderson in February 2019, claiming that he was the one at fault. Both Sanderson and Paltrow claim the opposing party rammed the other person from behind.
Dozens of motions have been filed in the case – including a successful effort by Paltrow to whittle down some of her opponent’s claims.
What’s happened so far and what’s at stake?
In May 2022, Third District Judge Kent Holmberg left Sanderson with a claim of simple negligence against Paltrow for the crash itself – but axed all of the additional claims involving anything that happened after the crash – and all of the claims against Paltrow’s ski instructor, Eric Christiansen, and the Deer Valley Resort Company, according to Salt Lake City-based NBC affiliate KSL. After that ruling, Sanderson’s original $3.1 million claim was reduced to $300,000.
“She did not knock him down,” her countersuit says. “He knocked her down. He was not knocked out. Ms. Paltrow was skiing carefully. She skied slowly to stay behind her children, who were receiving skiing instruction slightly further down the mountain.”
Paltrow is basically seeking a moral victory to clear her name. Her countersuit requests $1 in damages plus attorney’s fees.
What is the legal standard?
Sanderson’s remaining claim of simple negligence is likely to be anything but simple in a case involving such a high-profile defendant.
“What this looks like is a garden variety negligence case, but it won’t be a garden variety case because of who is involved,” S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Teneille R. Brown told Law&Crime.
The tort law expert, who teaches in Salt Lake City, noted that there have been numerous pretrial motions about media access, court rules concerning decorum, and similar filings.
“It’s going to be an outlier case,” she said.
Brown stressed that a simple negligence case is normally “pretty simple” and that the basic thrust of the case can be summed up by the question: “Did someone do something that was careless that caused harm?”
Under Utah law, simple negligence is defined in statute as “the failure to exercise that degree of care that reasonable and prudent persons exercise under like or similar circumstances.”
“The big issue here is going to be about the evidence and who the jury believes,” Brown explained. “And it really depends on whose story you believe. In a lot of negligence cases, you have competing versions of what happened. And that’s true here. In one version, [Paltrow] is more at fault. In another version, [Sanderson] is more at fault.”
The eight-person jury is also likely to consider what is known as the Utah law of the slopes, which generally says that skiing is inherently dangerous, that people skiing ahead of you have the right of way, and that it is your responsibility to avoid those ahead of you.
“Is there an obligation to ski carefully?” Brown asked rhetorically before answering. “Yes. That won’t be litigated. That won’t be controversial. The issue will be which of the parties was more careless and was their carelessness enough to cause injury?”
More Law&Crime coverage: Gwyneth Paltrow Ski Crash Trial: Doctor Suing Actress for Skiing ‘Out of Control’
“It’s not about just jumping into the elements,” Brown added. “It’s really going to come down to: Who does the jury believe? Whose experts does the jury believe? Which parties do they believe?”
What should court watchers expect?
Brown, who is a James I. Farr professor of law, also predicted some key questions that jurors would be likely to consider – and why.
“Do we think she caused these injuries? Was there maybe some preexisting injuries?” Brown said.”They’re both pointing the finger at each other in different ways. One of the injuries he’s alleging is a brain injury. That can be really difficult in cases like this where you don’t have first-hand eyewitnesses and one of the parties doesn’t have a perfect memory of what occurred.”
In response to Paltrow’s countersuit, Sanderson admitted that his recollection of the incident is imperfect. He says that memory loss is a byproduct of the crash. Paltrow, on the other hand, claims to remember everything about the crash. She alleges that despite suffering only minor injuries, the incident forced her off the slopes for the rest of the day.
Brown offered additional questions likely to hold jurors’ attention as they consider the evidence: “Do we think this person is making up a story to get a celebrity into court? Do we think they maybe embellished things a little bit?”
Perhaps instrumental will be the testimony of Christiansen. Sanderson claims the ski instructor and prior defendant did not see the crash but fabricated a claim to absolve Paltrow, his student that day. Christiansen says he did see it all and that Sanderson is the one to blame.
Brown suggested the emotions at play during testimony in the trial will be a big deal due to the dueling narratives.
“One important piece, which people don’t often learn about in law school, is the jury assessing the faces of the parties as they testify,” she said. “It’s like something you often see on playgrounds with toddlers. One kid says the other knocked the other one down. And no one saw it happen, so you have to go back and recreate the incident and see who is more credible.”
The initial report on the crash produced by the ski resort itself will also be important for jurors to consider, Brown said, because it was produced closer in time to the accident than any legal filing and likely carries a lot more weight than lawyered-up statements.
Paltrow is reportedly going to testify. Whether or not that makes Sanderson’s job any harder is anyone’s guess.
One legal expert, however, said the defendant’s celebrity status could work in her favor.
“The case boils down to who the jury believes and finds to be more credible,” Texas-based personal injury lawyer and legal expert George Salinas told Law&Crime. “Juries tend to look at anyone making a claim for money damages with suspicion at the outset, and maybe more so when there is a celebrity on the other side.”
Salinas said that Sanderson’s own career could complicate traditional notions a bit.
“What is unique here is that the plaintiff asking for a larger sum, based on demographics, is someone that earned a pretty good income,” the CEO of George Salinas Injury Lawyers added. “Given that the damages are capped at $300,000.00 for Sanderson and Paltrow counter-claimed for $1 plus attorneys fees, this long battle seems to be more about principle than anything else for the litigants.”
Both experts also offered a bottom-line evaluation of what the parties need to do in the upcoming trial.
“For the plaintiff, the standard is a preponderance of the evidence, which is not the same as reasonable doubt,” Brown told Law&Crime. “It’s much lower, it’s significantly lower. If the plaintiff can’t get to more than 50% likely that the defendant was at fault then he should lose.”
“For someone to prevail in this, ‘he said – she said’ case, the jury has to find that one version of the story is just even the tiniest bit more believable than the other, based on the preponderance of evidence standard,” Salinas said. “Another possibility is that the jury doesn’t find there is enough evidence to reach a decision, in which case neither side would prevail. Given the extent of injuries being claimed by Sanderson compared to Paltrow, this would be equivalent to a loss for him and a victory for Paltrow.”
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