On Tuesday, March 21st, 2023, hundreds of thousands watched as Dr. Terry Sanderson, a retired optometrist, faced off against Oscar-winning actor Gwyneth Paltrow in a Utah courtroom. Day one saw a staggering 439 thousand tune into live coverage streamed on Law & Crime and Court TV’s YouTube channels, and countless more likely caught highlights as news anchors the world over covered the case. On the final day, 768 thousand people gathered to watch closing arguments and hear the verdict read in court.
The jury found in favor of Gwyneth Paltrow — finding that Terry Sanderson was 100% at fault for the ski crash — and awarded the $1 in damages she countersued for.
Personal injury trials aren’t often in the public eye — nor under public scrutiny. A significant factor is that personal injury cases rarely go to court — often, the parties involved settle during negotiations. Even with a trial date set, it’s not uncommon for parties to negotiate a settlement to avoid the unpredictability of a jury trial.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s celebrity status no doubt played a massive role in this case’s popularity, and from our perspective, that can only be a good thing. The widespread coverage of the trial brought personal injury law to a new audience, educating the public on how these cases can play out should they ever find themselves injured in an accident that wasn’t their fault. For those considering going to trial, it offered a unique insight into what to expect.
But how realistic was the trial? The law is the law, whether one of the parties is an A-list celebrity or the average Joe. It’s the jury’s job to be impartial and weigh the evidence only, regardless of any particular feelings they might have toward either the plaintiff (the person or party bringing the claim) or the defendant (the person or party defending the claim).
But this case raises several questions. Would it have gotten this far if Gwyneth Paltrow wasn’t the defendant? Could there have been a different outcome if the facts were the same, but the defendant didn’t have Paltrow’s resources?
Personal injury attorney Dr. Louis “Doc” Patino takes a look at the trial and answers those questions, drawing on his decades of legal and medical experience.
The Ski Crash: What Happened?
On February 26th, 2016, at Deer Valley Resort, near Park City, Utah, Gwyneth Paltrow and Terry Sanderson collided on the slopes. Three years later, in January 2019, Sanderson filed for damages for the injuries he sustained. In his original complaint, Sanderson sought $3.1 million. When the judge dismissed this, Sanderson’s attorneys filed an amended complaint for $300,000.
Gwyneth Paltrow answered the complaint in February with a counterclaim for just $1.
How Common Are Countersuits?
Defendants frequently file counterclaims for monetary or symbolic reasons. In many accidents, the plaintiff isn’t the only one who has sustained damages.
We saw this in this case.
Sanderson’s amended complaint likened the ski crash to a “hit and run,” claiming the defendant “hit the back of Terry Sanderson… knocking him down hard, knocking him out, and causing a brain injury, four broken ribs, and other serious injuries.”
In Paltrow’s answer to the complaint, her attorneys state Ms. Paltrow “sustained a full ‘body blow’.” It further explains, “Because her injuries were relatively minor, she seeks only symbolic damages in the amount of $1, plus her costs and attorneys’ fees to defend this meritless claim.”
This was likely strategic — it says to the jury, “We don’t want money from the incident; we just want it known that we are right and they are in the wrong.”
However, a counterclaim can also be an aggressive move to make the plaintiff think twice about pursuing the claim.
The Court of Public Opinion
This isn’t the first time recently that a celebrity trial has captured the public’s attention.
In April 2022, the seven-week-long defamation trial involving actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard reached fever pitch, with view counts reaching a staggering 24 million.
But that number pales compared to the 150 million people who watched a jury acquit former NFL player O.J. Simpson in 1995 for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Indisputably the most televised court case of all time, it permanently altered the media landscape as we knew it. The fact that no event since has come close to toppling that figure — even in an age of live TV literally at our fingertips — is a testament to its significance.
It’s easy to get swept up in the novelty of seeing celebrities on the stand. These are people we might watch on TV, follow online, or even look up to. It can feel as if we know them, so part of our fascination with celebrity trials is curiosity about what will happen and how they will respond.
It can also be gratifying knowing that even the rich and famous have problems — they’re normal, just like the rest of us.
But there’s a darker side to this. Celebrity court trials become a spectacle. Colleagues gather around the water cooler (literal or virtual) to offer their opinions, vehemently defend — or condemn — those involved, and scrutinize witnesses.
We also see this play out on social media. A notable example is the defamation case brought by Johnny Depp, where hashtags like #JusticeforJohnnyDepp and #JusticeforAmberHeard trended globally. But we’ve seen it in the Paltrow case, too. Moments after Paltrow’s testimony, jokes and memes about the star losing half a day of skiing went viral.
Some mocked Kristen Van Orman — Sanderson’s attorney — for trying to build a rapport with the actor. This may have been part of Van Orman’s trial strategy to disarm Paltrow and encourage her to open up. In any jury trial, an attorney would do themselves and their client great harm if they were rude, sarcastic, or mean toward an opposition witness — no one likes a bully. It likely even helped the jury relate to the attorney — they may have been starstruck by the famous defendant too.
Still, this didn’t stop people from offering an opinion. One UK reporter likened the cross-examination to a “fangirling session” and argued that opposing counsel was more likely to “press Gwyneth for a selfie than any hard truths.”
The jury may have been the finder of fact in the courtroom, but there was an altogether different battle taking place in the court of public opinion.
The danger of this is that it’s all too easy to lose sight of the seriousness of the situation.
Depp v Heard was just as much about intimate partner violence as reputation. The media often sensationalizes murder trials, but families must cope with life without their loved ones long after people stop talking about the case. In personal injury cases, victims have often sustained catastrophic injuries that affect their work, relationships, and quality of life.
Fortunately, the widespread media coverage is a less realistic element of the case. Criminal trials tend to attract more attention, but civil cases usually garner much less public scrutiny.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s status as the defendant in this case dominated headlines. But what wasn’t so widely reported was that Sanderson originally sued multiple parties. The other parties targeted were:
- Deer Valley Resort, the Utah company that operates the ski resort where the accident happened.
- Eric Christiansen, an employee of Deer Valley Resort and a witness in Paltrow’s case.
- Jane and John Doe, Deer Valley employees who were with Paltrow and Eric Christiansen on the day of the ski crash.
The plaintiff’s complaint outlines the elements required to succeed in a personal injury claim:
- The defendant has a duty of care
- The defendant has breached that duty through action or inaction (recklessness or negligence)
- The breach caused physical, emotional, or financial damages.
Sanderson’s attorneys argued that all defendants owed a duty of care to other skiers to ski safely and in control while maintaining a lookout for other skiers. They also claimed all defendants owed a duty to notify ski patrol or emergency responders and that they breached this duty.
The complaint states:
|“Gwyneth Paltrow knew it was wrong to ski out of control too fast for her ability and distracted, but she did it anyway.
Gwyneth Paltrow knew that a down hill [sic] skier almost always has the right of way, and Sanderson was downhill from Paltrow, when she approached Sanderson.
Gwyneth Paltrow knew it was wrong to slam into Dr. Sanderson’s back, knocking him down, landing on top of him, knocking him out and then leave the scene of the ski crash she caused, but she did it anyway.
Eric Christiansen and other Deer Valley employees, including Does 1 and 2… knew it was wrong to ski away from Dr. Sanderson after he was hit… but they did it anyway.
Eric Christiansen knew it was wrong to falsely report on an official incident report that Gwyneth Paltrow did not cause the ski crash… but he did it anyway.
Defendants Eric Christiansen, Doe 1 and 2, and the employees and agents of Deer Valley and Gwyneth Paltrow… were acting within the course and scope of their employment, and Deer Valley and Gwyneth Paltrow are vicariously liable for their actions.
Deer Valley and its employees knew it was wrong to cover up in incident reports and in other ways the true circumstances of this ski crash… but they did it anyway.”
It goes on to say that as a direct result of the defendants’ negligence, Sanderson suffered physical and mental injuries such as permanent traumatic brain injury, four broken ribs, pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, emotional distress, and disfigurement, medical expenses, and life care expenses. It also claims he will continue to suffer injuries and damages.
While on the stand, Eric Christiansen denied falsifying the accident report to cover for Paltrow. Interestingly, on January 10th, 2023 — just weeks before the trial began — the co-defendants were dismissed.
How Common Is It?
It’s typical to sue multiple defendants in a personal injury claim.
In our justice system, a person may sue another for any sum — even a zillion dollars — but the question is, “Would the jury believe it is a reasonable amount given the damages resulting from the incident?” What constitutes a reasonable amount depends on several factors, including the severity of the injuries sustained and the financial resources of the sued party.
One of the first questions a personal injury lawyer must ask is, “Can the defendant afford a compensation payout?” It’s foolish to pursue a case when the other party is broke.
Take a truck accident, for example. The truck driver may have caused the accident, but an attorney would investigate whether other parties could be liable. If the truck company encouraged the driver to work longer than allowed and they were on the clock during the crash, the employer may be at fault — and have deeper pockets.
The Timeline: What We Didn’t See
Trial preparation takes a lot of time. We can gauge this based on how long it took for the case to go to court — the accident happened in February 2016, but the trial didn’t begin until seven years later. The Utah personal injury statute of limitations is four years, giving plaintiffs longer to bring legal action. By comparison, parties have just two years to file a claim in Texas.
But whatever the statute of limitations, several key things must happen before trial, including:
- Investigating the accident, including gathering names of witnesses and videos or pictures that may be available.
- Gathering expert witnesses.
- Taking depositions of the opposing party, law enforcement officials who investigated the accident, lay witnesses, and expert witnesses.
- Hiring a company to provide graphics or accident reconstruction.
- Informal negotiation or formal mediation to try to resolve the claim.
Roadblocks can also crop up during the process. Either party might challenge the qualifications of an expert witness or argue to include, exclude, or restrict evidence (called a motion in limine). It can take several hearings before a judge to iron out such issues.
COVID-19 backlogged many courts, and they haven’t fully recovered. Criminal cases take precedence due to the Sixth Amendment right of criminal defendants to a speedy trial (unless they explicitly waive that right), so it can take even longer for a civil case — such as a personal injury claim — to go to court.
Cameras in the courtroom only capture the presentation of evidence. We don’t see the hours, days, months, and years of preparing exhibits, filing motions, issuing subpoenas, and requesting continuances (adjourning or postponing a trial or deposition).
The Sanderson v Paltrow docket reveals hundreds of steps, filings, and hearings. A selection of these include:
- 01/29/2019: Original complaint filed by plaintiff
- 02/04/2019: Amended complaint filed by plaintiff
- 02/20/2019: Defendant’s answer and counterclaim filed
- 03/06/2019: Plaintiff’s answer to the counterclaim filed
- 04/02/2019: Motion to dismiss hearing scheduled for June 2019
- 06/10/2019: Motion to dismiss hearing (Deer Valley Resort).
- 07/16/2019: Memorandum filed for plaintiff opposing Deer Valley’s motion to dismiss
- 08/14/2019: Memorandum decision: motion denied
- 10/21/2019: Notice of deposition of defendant Gwyneth Paltrow
- 12/24/2019: Notice of deposition of Terry Sanderson and Terry Sanderson’s children.
- 03/17/2020: Notice of continuance of Sanderson family depositions
- 03/18/2020: Notice of continuance of Paltrow family depositions
- 12/30/2020: First exhibits filed (including Deer Valley Resort’s report and excerpts from depositions).
- 03/15/2021: Notice of continued videotaped deposition of Terry Sanderson filed
- 09/02/2021: Pretrial conference.
- 10/02/2022: Final pretrial conference, jury selection set for 03/17/2023, and 8-day trial set for March 21st, 2023.
- 01/06/2023: Motion to exclude Paltrow’s demonstrative exhibit (animations)
- 01/10/2023: Co-defendants (Eric Christiansen, Deer Valley Resort, and Jane and John Doe) dismissed
- 01/17/2023: Exhibits filed (including Sanderson deposition excerpts, email chain, and press conference transcript)
- 02/17/2023: Reply to plaintiff’s motion in limine to exclude mentions of “famous” comment (email chain), press conference, and $3.1 million demand
- 02/27/2023: Evidentiary hearing
- 02/28/2023: Pretrial conference, with parties’ proposed special verdict form and jury instructions filed
- 03/08/2023: Defendant’s objection to plaintiff’s jury instructions and special verdict form filed
- 03/17/2023: Motion in limine filed to exclude unreliable and misleading testimony regarding Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans
- 03/17/2023: Voir dire (jury selection)
- 03/21/2023: Day one of jury trial.
This is a tiny snapshot of what happens behind the scenes in a typical personal injury trial — whether one of the parties is a celebrity or not.
Evidence is undeniably a critical element of a personal injury claim. It includes witness testimony, media (such as photographs and videos), documents, objects, and more — and it can make or break a case. If an attorney successfully challenges a witness’s credibility, it can provide enough doubt for a jury to return an unfavorable verdict. But as we’ve already seen, much of the battle is waged long before the trial begins.
Terry Sanderson’s basis for suing Gwyneth Paltrow was that he sustained severe injuries that caused emotional distress, loss of enjoyment, disorientation, and memory loss.
His legal team called on medical experts to prove this point, with radiologist Dr. Wendell Gibby testifying that Sanderson “deteriorated abruptly,” opining the head trauma was likely caused by a skier crashing into him. Neuropsychologist Dr. Samuel Goldstein further added that Sanderson’s post-crash trajectory was on an “acute rapid downturn” and “were it not for that particular accident… he would continue to be living [the life he was living before the crash].”
Of course, Paltrow’s team also called a cohort of expert witnesses, including neurologist Dr. Robert Hoesch, who testified that Sanderson’s scans showed no evidence of post-traumatic brain injury and that underlying symptoms could result from natural, age-related deterioration.
Testimony from radiologist Dr. Carl Black further supported this. Black attributed Sanderson’s symptoms to aging and said anomalies in his brain scans pre-date the accident.
Paltrow’s team maintained this stance from the start — even in their answer to Sanderson’s complaint filed in 2019. The document states Sanderson had chronic medical issues and told a doctor a year before the incident that he was blind in his right eye and the vision in his left was deteriorating. Just three weeks before the incident, he said he had “gotten old all of a sudden”.
Based on the conflicting statements and stories of how the accident happened, it might have seemed the trial would be a traditional “battle of the experts,” where the jury would have to determine whose witness they believe is more credible.
But additional evidence tipped the scales in Paltrow’s favor.
The first piece is what Sanderson did directly after the accident. Paltrow’s counterclaim asserted that when she sustained a full body blow, Paltrow was angry with the plaintiff and told him so. Then, Sanderson apologized.
An apology is not evidence of guilt, but it can go a long way with a jury. Why apologize if you weren’t responsible for the accident? It’s the reason we advise our clients to avoid apologetic statements after an accident — whether to others involved in the accident, insurance companies, or law enforcement.
The ‘Famous’ Email
Mere hours after the accident, Sanderson emailed his daughter with the subject line, “I’m famous”. When recalled to the stand during the defense case, Sanderson admitted he didn’t pick his words well and was trying to “add some levity to a serious situation.” However, it’s not a leap to see how the jury could interpret that evidence — evidence the plaintiff previously motioned to exclude — as Sanderson wishing to perpetuate his “famedom” by pursuing legal action.
The Vacation Pics
Paltrow’s attorneys also questioned Sanderson about photographs uploaded to Facebook after the accident showing him vacationing around the world, including trekking in Peru, riding a camel in Morocco, and adventuring in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and France. This contradicted claims from Sanderson’s attorneys that he had become a “recluse” who could no longer participate in activities he enjoyed.
This demonstrates why accident victims must watch what they say after an accident. During trial prep, the defendant’s lawyers will comb through your social media presence, looking for photos, videos, and statements that might refute your claim.
Even if you hope to settle, your statements can still be used against you by the other side. Insurance adjusters might argue your injuries aren’t as bad as you make out because you told a friend you were “okay” or “well” after your accident.
If this trial illustrates anything, it’s that social media can come back to bite you.
The Accident Reconstruction
The judge allowed the jury to see several accident reconstruction animations presented from the viewpoint of ski instructor Eric Christiansen.
These were demonstrative aids only — tools to support the testimony of Paltrow’s expert witnesses. As such, they were not evidence the jury could rely on in deliberations. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t valuable. The key to winning a trial is considering the jury’s point of view. Animations, pictures, and graphs can help keep jurors engaged during long days of what can be dry — but vital — testimony.
That said, it’s uncommon to see — or expect — fancy, high-resolution accident reconstruction in every personal injury case. When financial restrictions or policy limits apply, an attorney needs to carefully consider and monitor overheads and expenses because the more spent on the trial, the less the client will receive. Therefore, attorneys usually reserve expensive animations for more substantial cases where significant compensation is at stake.
The Missing GoPro Footage
One of the notable controversies during the trial was the existence of GoPro footage alluded to in an email from Sanderson to his daughter.
Paltrow’s attorneys claimed Sanderson deleted the video as it would show he caused the crash. Jurors cannot consider a lack of or missing evidence in their deliberations, but it does beg the question of how the trial might have turned out had it existed.
If the video showed one party was entirely at fault, the case might not have even gone to trial. On the other hand, if it showed both parties contributed to the accident, the goal would have been to minimize liability rather than deny it entirely.
Photos and videos are the ultimate evidence in any personal injury case. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is not just a cliche — to jurors, it is golden.
That’s why CCTV, helmet camera footage, or other visual evidence is valuable. It is indisputable — and far more reliable than testimony from witnesses forced to remember events that may have happened years ago.
Without it, the jury’s decision often comes down to who they find more credible.
An Absent Plaintiff
In a jury trial, optics are everything. How a plaintiff or defendant presents themselves — even down to their clothes — impacts how the jury perceives them.
Interestingly, Terry Sanderson wasn’t in court for all of the proceedings — he was present for opening statements and then didn’t appear until his attorneys called him to the stand days later.
In general, it’s unusual for a plaintiff to be absent — it would seem that the person who brought the suit should be present, and the jury probably wondered why he wasn’t there.
Compare this to Paltrow, who was with her attorneys for the entire trial. The star undoubtedly had other things to do than sit in a courtroom. She could have even settled the claim privately — she certainly had the resources — but she didn’t, and that lends to her credibility. Without saying a word, she conveyed to jurors that even though she’s famous, someone wrongfully accused her, and she was there to defend herself.
After both sides delivered closing arguments, the jury deliberated for a couple of hours before reaching a verdict.
There are several noteworthy things to touch on here:
- Utah, like Texas, has modified comparative negligence laws.
- The burden of proof is much lower for a personal injury trial.
- The Utah Constitution requires only three-quarters of a jury to agree to a verdict.
Let’s unpack those a bit.
Many states have modified comparative negligence laws. These allow individuals to claim compensation even if they’re partially at fault for their accident — as long as their level of fault is below 50% or 51% (the cap varies by state).
The cap is 50% in Utah, so as long as a party is less than 50% responsible, they can still claim. However, they will receive less compensation based on their level of fault.
This negligence law allowed the jury in Sanderson v Paltrow to hold both parties responsible if they chose. This could have impacted the gwyneth paltrow verdict in several ways:
- If the jury found Sanderson 80% at fault and Paltrow 20% liable, Paltrow would still be entitled to compensation because her fault fell below the cap. If the jury awarded the defendant $1, she would receive 80 cents (or 80%, which accounts for the 20% she’s not entitled to because of her role in the accident).
- If the jury found both parties equally at fault (a 50-50 split), neither party would be entitled to any compensation.
The jury found Sanderson 100% at fault, indicating they did not believe his story was credible.
The Burden of Proof
Civil cases have a much lower burden of proof compared to criminal cases. In civil court, the standard is “by a preponderance of the evidence” compared to the much higher criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
“By a preponderance of the evidence” means “more likely than not”. The jury does not need to be utterly convinced one party caused an accident to return a favorable verdict for the other.
In this case, the jury may have had some doubts. It was ultimately a he-said, she-said — one person’s word against another’s. This can introduce enough reasonable doubt to acquit a defendant in a criminal case, especially if there’s only circumstantial evidence and shaky witness testimony. But fortunately for Paltrow, all the jury had to determine was that Sanderson more likely than not caused the accident.
In general, the lower burden makes it easier to secure a favorable result, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy — and this case demonstrates that. Evidence and credibility are key.
The Unanimous Verdict
Only six of the eight Utah jurors (or three-quarters) presiding over Terry Sanderson and Gwyneth Paltrow’s ski crash case had to agree to reach a verdict.
But that’s not what happened. The jury voted unanimously in favor of the defendant. This indicates the strength of Paltrow’s case and is likely why the jury reached a verdict so quickly.
You might wonder if it’s common for a jury to reach a verdict in such a short time. Ultimately, it depends. The lower burden and majority vote can make it easier to agree on who’s liable. But that’s only one part of the deliberation. The jury must also determine damages.
This conversation would likely have been short and sweet in the Utah jury room. They had already agreed Sanderson was 100% responsible, and Paltrow asked for only a single dollar — that probably seemed fair.
But had the jury found Paltrow liable, the jury would have taken much longer to deliberate because they would have had to weigh the damages sought by Sanderson against the damages deserved.
Sanderson’s attorney asked the jury to award a specific figure in his closing argument. He calculated this by suggesting his client receive $33 an hour for the 16 hours a day he has to suffer the consequences of his injuries. When multiplied by 17 years (the seven since the accident plus the ten he is estimated to live), that comes to a few thousand short of $3.3 million.
The jury could have awarded $300,000, $1 million, $3.3 million, or any other amount — but at least six of the eight would have needed to agree, and it likely would have taken a lot longer.
The Right Decision?
A jury pool comprises a diverse population with unique life experiences, so by their very nature, jurors are unpredictable. That said, they get it right most of the time.
Whatever the outcome, we must respect the jury’s verdict. This is our judicial system, and it works.
In a post-verdict interview, Sanderson said he was disappointed, but it’s not hard to see how the jury reached their decision. Paltrow could have settled the case and avoided the media fanfare, public scrutiny, and paparazzi, but she believed she did nothing wrong and had no intention of compromising her truth by taking the easy route. In the end, the jury believed her too. When court was adjourned, Paltrow approached the plaintiff and — in a classy move — touched Sanderson on the shoulder, wishing him well.
Celebrity trials are always going to garner attention. Some may argue such attention isn’t helpful — it’s easy to be absorbed in the drama of it all — but it also creates opportunities for people to learn about our legal system. This trial wouldn’t have achieved such widespread coverage without Paltrow’s celebrity status. But because it did, this case shined a welcome light on personal injury law, showing just how much work goes into preparing a claim and what plaintiffs can expect in the proceedings.
Dr. Louis Patino is an experienced personal injury lawyer and trial advocate. We’re not afraid to take your claim to trial if we believe you have a strong case, and we will fight to get you the compensation you deserve. To find out more about the process and see if you have a claim, contact our personal injury lawyers in McAllen and San Antonio today.