When two skiers collided on a beginner run at an upscale Utah ski resort in 2016, no one could foresee that seven years later, the crash would become the subject of a closely watched celebrity trial.
But Gwyneth Paltrow’s live-streamed trial over her collision with Terry Sanderson, a 76-year-old retired optometrist, in Park City emerged as the biggest celebrity court case since actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard faced off last year — spawning memes, sparking debate about the burden of fame, and making ski etiquette rules of who was uphill and who had the right of way relevant beyond those who can afford resort chairlift tickets.
On Thursday, Paltrow won her court battle after a jury decided the movie star wasn’t at fault for the crash. Here is a look back at highlights from the two-week trial:
Lifestyles of the rich and famous
For seven days, attorneys highlighted — and downplayed — Paltrow and Sanderson’s extravagant lifestyles.
Sanderson’s attorneys sought more than $300,000 in damages, but the money at stake for both sides paled in comparison to the typical legal costs of a multiyear lawsuit. Both sides marshalled brigades of expert witnesses, including a biomechanical engineer and collision expert.
Paltrow’s legal team attempted to represent Sanderson as an angry, aging man who continued to travel internationally after the collision. They introduced photos into evidence of Sanderson camel riding in Morocco, trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, and taking a continent-wide loop through Europe with stops in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France and Belgium.
Sanderson’s attorneys questioned Paltrow about that day’s $8,890 bill for private ski instructors for four children accompanying her, as well as her decision to leave the slope after the crash to get a massage. They said the accident caused Sanderson to grow distant from friends and family, and they called his ex-girlfriend to testify about how their relationship deteriorated because he “had no joy left in his life.”
To keep jurors engaged, Paltrow’s team shared a series of advanced, high-resolution animations to accompany their witnesses’ recollections. The renderings reflected the financial investment Paltrow and her defense team devoted to the case.
The burden of fame
Attorneys on both sides tapped into the power of celebrity to make their cases that reputations and moral principles were what was at stake in the trial.
Sanderson’s side tried to characterize Paltrow, the actor-turned-lifestyle influencer, as clumsy, out of touch and evading accountability. They likened her decision to file a $1 countersuit against Sanderson to Taylor Swift, who filed a similar counterclaim in a lawsuit in 2017 — drawing attention to Paltrow’s testimony that she was “not good friends” with Swift but just “friendly.”
Paltrow’s defense team called the highly publicized case an attempt to exploit her fame and suggested she is vulnerable to unfair, frivolous lawsuits. They questioned witnesses about Sanderson’s “obsession” with the case and homed in on an email subject line in which Sanderson wrote after the collision: “I’m famous.”
“To become famous, he will lie,” one of Paltrow’s attorneys said. “I’m not into celebrity worship,” Sanderson later rebutted.
Factory of memes
Though the trial tested the jury’s endurance as its eight members gradually sunk deeper into their chairs through hours of expert-witness testimony, it titillated spectators worldwide, became late-night television fodder and fed the internet’s insatiable appetite for memes.
Viewers tuning into proceedings on CourtTV saw Paltrow complain about losing a half-day of skiing after the crash and heard a radiologist testify that Sanderson could no longer enjoy wine tasting. They compared the spectacle to “The White Lotus” — an HBO series that satirizes the petty grievances of rich, white vacationers — and, in a reflection of the courtroom theatrics and rapt public attention, likened Paltrow’s defense to the Salem witch trials of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
Photographs of Paltrow entering and exiting the courtroom — often shielding her face, perp-walk style, with a blue GP-initialed notebook — also have gone viral on social media.
Utah’s poshest ski town
The proceedings have drawn the world’s attention to Park City, Utah, the silver boomtown-turned posh ski resort where Paltrow and Sanderson crashed and the trial was held. The city annually hosts the Sundance Film Festival, where early in her career Paltrow would appear for the premieres of her movies, including 1998’s “Sliding Doors,” at a time when she was known primarily as an actor, not a celebrity wellness entrepreneur.
The jury and local residents who have braved blizzards to get to the courthouse each day nodded along as attorneys referenced local landmarks like The Montage Deer Valley, the slope-side luxury resort where Paltrow got a massage after the crash.
The all-white jury was drawn from registered voters in Summit County, where the average home sold for $1.3 million last month and residents tend to be less religious than the rest of Utah, where the majority of the population belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Unlike the high-powered Hollywood attorneys that become household names at celebrity trials, both sides were represented by local lawyers. Paltrow’s team specializes in medical malpractice lawsuits, while Sanderson’s lead counsel, Bob Sykes, is known in Salt Lake City for his work suing police departments. Sykes attempted to play up his folksiness, referring to himself as “just a country lawyer” more than six times during the trial. After jurors were sent home Wednesday, both legal teams joked about the trial lawyer gimmick.
The mysterious missing GoPro
Paltrow’s attorneys intrigued the jury with questions about the collision potentially being captured on a helmet-cam video, though no footage was included as evidence in the trial.
Sanderson’s daughter testified this week that an email she sent the day of the accident referring to a GoPro didn’t imply footage existed. She said she and her father speculated that on a crowded beginner run, someone wearing a camera must have turned to look at the crash after hearing Paltrow scream.
Internet sleuths following the trial later found and sent attorneys the link included in the email. Rather than revealing GoPro footage though, it contained a chatroom discussion between members of Sanderson’s ski group, including the man claiming to be the sole eyewitness who testified Paltrow crashed into Sanderson.
Paltrow looked to her attorneys with a pursed-lips smile when the judge read the eight-member jury’s verdict in the Park City courtroom.
The jury awarded her $1; however, the attorney fees she asked for in her countersuit were not included in the verdict, leaving the bulk of the final award for the Park City judge to decide.
Paltrow thanked the judge and jury for their work.
“I felt that acquiescing to a false claim compromised my integrity,” the actor said in a statement released by her representatives.
As Paltrow left court, she touched Sanderson’s shoulder and told him, “I wish you well,” Sanderson told reporters outside court. He responded, “Thank you, dear.”
Furman reported from Los Angeles.