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When Skiers (and Stories) Collide

Gwyneth Paltrow Wins in Ski Accident Lawsuit

By Brian Kabateck

After the much-watched, tweeted, and memed eight-day trial last month, a Utah jury absolved Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow of responsibility for a 2016 ski crash, awarding her a symbolic $1.

The collision occurred on a beginner slope at the upscale Deer Valley Resort in Park City. Beyond that, the parties presented starkly different versions of what happened.

Terry Sanderson, a retired optometrist, filed suit against Paltrow in 2019. He claims Paltrow barreled into him on the hill while looking over at her children. Calling the incident a “hit and run,” Sanderson sued the movie-star-turned-wellness-mogul for over $300,000 (reduced from $3 million after a judge dismissed his original suit), alleging that their accident left him with broken ribs and permanent brain damage that has impacted his daily life and altered his personality. His radiologist and daughter testified that his condition has worsened over time.

Paltrow denies Sanderson’s account. She claims Sanderson ran into her from behind, and she initially thought it was a sexual assault, as her legs were forced apart and she felt a “body pressed up against” her own. She says Sanderson was able to stand up after the crash and that he told her he was “okay.” Paltrow’s ski instructor, who accompanied her family the day of the accident, told the court that Paltrow was skiing and turning “rhythmically” while Sanderson was making wide turns and taking up a lot of space on the slope.

After a short deliberation, the jury found Sanderson to be at fault.

Like many celebrity cases, this one got a lot of press and social media traction due to the star power of the defendant, which can ultimately help or hurt. Commentators pounced on several awkward moments—such as Paltrow shielding her face with a pricey notebook or the plaintiff’s attorney conjecturing that Paltrow must have looked great in her ski gear.

But—celebrity and watercooler talk aside—what was going on in this case? What happens when two involved parties have such divergent recollections of events; when there is no clear liability in a personal injury suit? Why sue when there’s an accident? Is someone always at fault in a ski collision? How does the jury decide?

Sometimes accidents happen; however, inexperience, poor judgment, extreme risk-taking, recklessness, and failure to follow protocols are leading causes of ski accidents and injuries. A collision with an inanimate obstacle, such as a tree or rock, frequently causes severe skiing injuries.

But when a crash happens between two skiers, the case almost always hinges on their relative positions on the slope—and that’s how this trial played out. According to the Responsibility Code provided by the National Ski Areas Association, the uphill skier must watch out for those ahead and downhill of themselves and stay in control.

After hearing evidence in the Sanderson-Paltrow case, the jury ultimately concluded that Sanderson was the uphill skier and was at fault for the accident.

Although ski-related lawsuits are standard, most cases like this never make it to trial. Frequently, who is at fault is determined during the investigation period of the suit, and the case settles out of court with the defendant’s insurance company. Homeowners insurance typically includes general liability coverage, which pays out in a settlement or judgment in this type of accident.

However, numerous factors impact the value of a personal injury suit, including the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries and the losses that resulted from them, the strength of the case for liability, the available insurance, and the jurisdiction in which the suit is filed.

Paltrow accused Sanderson of exploiting her wealth and fame. Although she expressed compassion for Sanderson’s condition, she maintained that she was not responsible for the accident or his injuries. She said she decided to fight the suit in court rather than settle because “acquiescing to a false claim would compromise my integrity.” It’s possible, however, that she was under pressure from her insurance company to go to trial.

A severe accident on the slopes can be a life-altering event with long-term physical, psychological, and financial impacts. While there is an inherent risk in an adventure sport like skiing or snowboarding, some accidents are due to someone else’s neglect and could have been prevented with proper care. If you or someone you love has been injured in a ski or snowboard accident, the experienced and compassionate personal injury attorneys at Kabateck LLP can help you navigate the complex process of establishing liability, filing suit, and recovering the compensation you deserve.