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Gwyneth Paltrow is in court fighting over a ski accident. Here's why such cases rarely make it to trial

Ashley Collman   

Gwyneth Paltrow is in court fighting over a ski accident. Here's why such cases rarely make it to trial
  • Ski collision lawsuits like Gwyneth Paltrow's are common in Utah, local lawyers said.
  • But it's rare for one to make it all the way to trial since fault is usually easy to determine.

Ski collision lawsuits are a dime a dozen in Utah, home to some of the world's best ski resorts. And while such cases usually settle, the one involving actress Gwyneth Paltrow taking place in Summit County this week was bound for trial, experts say.

That's because both sides in the Paltrow case "have very different versions on what happened" so there's no "clear liability," Preston Handy, a founding partner at the Handy & Handy personal injury law firm in Salt Lake City, told Insider.

Terry Sanderson, a retired optometrist, sued the Academy Award-winning actress for negligence in 2019, claiming she was distracted when she crashed into him on a beginner slope at Deer Valley in 2016, causing him to break four ribs and to suffer a traumatic brain injury.

Paltrow disputes much of Sanderson's story. The "Shakespeare in Love" star filed a countersuit, saying it was actually Sanderson who ran into her and that his health problems predate the crash.

Handy said his firm has handled dozens of similar cases, but it usually becomes clear who is at fault during the fact-finding stage of a lawsuit, and those cases settle before ever reaching a jury. That hasn't happened here.

Dan Garner, founder of The Garner Law Firm in Salt Lake City, said he's "shocked" Paltrow's case made it to trial, and he expects an insurance company is forcing her to fight it in court.

"Likely Gwyneth has insurance and then the insurance hired an attorney," Garner said. "But I would be surprised if Gwyneth had her own attorney that was putting pressure on the insurance attorney to settle the case."

Representatives for Paltrow declined to comment. Sanderson's lawyers did not respond to Insider's request for comment.

Ski collision lawsuits are a growing problem

Handy said ski collision lawsuits are becoming "more and more common" in Utah, and believes it might be due to more skiers on the slopes unaware of the skier "responsibility code."

Part of that code is central in this case: Skiers are supposed to give the right of way to those below them on the hill. Handy said skiers who are higher on the mountain have a responsibility to yield to those below them and can't see them coming. In this case, both Paltrow and Sanderson claim they were rear-ended.

Lawsuits against resorts are less common, Handy said, because there's a Utah statute acknowledging the inherent risk of skiing, which largely shields slope operators. Deer Valley Resort and one of its ski instructors were initially named as defendants in Sanderson's lawsuit, but the claims against them were later dismissed.

Sanderson claims he suffered more than $3 million in damages

In opening statements on Tuesday, Sanderson's attorney Lawrence Buhler claimed his client had suffered more than $3 million in damages. In her countersuit, Paltrow is asking the jury to award her just $1 in damages, plus attorneys' fees.

Neither Handy nor Garner could say how much money plaintiffs typically ask for in ski collision lawsuits, since every case is different. But Handy said Sanderson's claimed damages are significant.

"Anytime you're talking about seven-figure cases, that's a large amount," Handy said.

Paltrow's lawyer, Steve Owens, has argued in court that Sanderson's health issues predate the collision.

Garner, however, said Paltrow's lawyers may struggle to win on this issue due to the "eggshell doctrine," which means a defendant can be responsible for exacerbating a plaintiff's previous injury.

"Even though he might have had a stroke-like event beforehand, if Gwyneth is found to be liable for causing his injuries or if he aggravated a prior injury, she would still be responsible for that," Garner said.

Paltrow's ski collision case also has the celebrity factor

Paltrow's celebrity status will no doubt have an impact on the case, Handy and Garner said.

Handy said it could be both a "strength and probably a weakness" for Sanderson.

"A jury might think that he's bringing the claim — and I'm not saying he is — but they might think he's bringing the claim because she's a celebrity who has deep pockets. And that can play both ways," Handy said. "A jury, if they believe him and believe his damages, they'll think she has the ability to pay."

Garner agreed that Paltrow's fame could lead to a larger payout if Sanderson wins, since the jury may think that $3 million is a negligible amount for Paltrow. But Garner said Paltrow may also have the advantage of fans on the jury.

Neither Garner nor Handy would predict the jury's decision.

"It will come down to who the jury believes," Handy said.

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