The Gwyneth Paltrow Ski Trial: Beyond the Memes and Verdict Looms an Empathy Gap for an Injured Older Man
Gwyneth Paltrow sits in court during her civil trial over a 2016 collision with another skier at Utah's Park City Mountain Resort, March 27, 2023. Photo: Rick Bowmer-Pool/Getty Images
The absolute perfection of a vindicated Gwyneth Paltrow, 50, leaning down to offer an ambiguous platitude to Terry Sanderson, the 76-year-old retired eye doctor who had sued her for negligence in a 2016 ski crash in Utah, is yet another great moment in memes.
“I wish you well,” was her choice of words.
Now, on the surface, that was the gracious thing to do. He had cost her a half-day of skiing — as she now famously noted during her testimony — and a week and a half away from her GOOP empire.
He had lost much more, of course, but the jury determined that none of that was Paltrow’s fault. Still, the simple well-wishing phrase had an icy chill to it, underlining the Oscar-winning actress and wellness guru’s excellent manners and simultaneous ability to apply nuanced shade to the situation. It was empathy applied with a fine edged trowel.
The Gwyneth Paltrow ski collision trial offered up a glut of memes to the pop culture footprint while also serving as a master class in Stealth Wealth dressing curated for maximum courtroom appeal, with the GOOP founder sending out a complex set of signals with what People is calling her “elevated neutral” daywear. But it also highlighted an empathy gap.
The plaintiff, Sanderson, launched the lawsuit (originally set at US$3.1 million, which was rejected by a judge and a new suit was launched claiming Paltrow was negligent, with a ceiling of US$300,000), and anyone who has been through a divorce knows that once lawyers are representing both parties, all empathy goes out the window.
Paltrow seemed throughout to feel victimized herself here, as a wealthy celebrity target, and her version of events, which the jury backed, has the doctor skiing into her as she was “downhill,” which we have all since learned is part of the mysterious ski code regarding right of way.
Paltrow did say on the stand that she feels “very sorry” for Sanderson, who asserts that he has been left with brain damage from a concussion suffered that day, disorientation and personality changes. His daughters testified to his upswing in both depressive symptoms and swiftness to anger.
Paltrow further maintains she was not “at fault” and that, in fact, she had been the “victim” in this case. She acknowledged that the adrenalin surge of the accident — which she thought at the time might be some sort of “perverted” groping incident as she felt hands (and foreign skiis) between her legs — prompted her to swear at the doctor in the immediate aftermath, noting that the temporary outburst occurred as a result of the shock of his impact.
Then Sanderson really took things too far. He compared Paltrow to Jeffrey Epstein, and that is, in this observer’s opinion, the moment he sealed the jury’s decision. He just had lost touch with reality.
But, the one thing no one is talking about is that Sanderson is an older man; he would have been around 69 at the time of the accident. In bringing this suit, he has endured lawyers — and trial observers — speculating that dementia may have been developing even at that point (there’s a complicated array of evidence regarding enlarged ventricles in the brain present circa 2009).
This is where ageism comes in: the narrative is that it doesn’t matter what happens to him because he was becoming old and infirm anyway. But hey, this guy has seemingly been seriously impacted, and the reality-TV-style narrative has been solely centred on entertainment values: what Gwyneth is wearing; the intimate and personal gifts she buys or does not buy for Taylor Swift at Christmas; and the on-brand theatre of her team offering GOOPy goodies to the bailiffs (and being rebuffed).
The capper, and the mother of all memes, was her statement on the stand when Sanderson’s lawyer goaded her into elaborating on her own loss of a “very expensive ski vacation.” Paltrow single-handedly authored the 2023 version of a let-them-eat-cake moment: “Well, I lost a half day of skiing.” But in this age of reality television and The White Lotus and the slick marketing of villains, Paltrow has somehow emerged as a one percenter anti-hero to be cheered.
I guess I’m wondering what happened to our humanity. I can enjoy celebrity foibles and lascivious details as much, or probably more, than the next person, and I write about them all the time, with zeal. But, like the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp case, the point here is being lost. Just as domestic violence was the dark heart of the Depp trial and countersuit, so too is a serious, life-changing injury at the centre of this one.
One reason this trial has blown up is the nature of Paltrow’s fame: she has crafted one of the most divisive personages of our time. People love her and hate her equally. She went from a patrician ingenue (she is half-Jewish on her father’s side, but exudes East Coast WASP) attending the Dalton School in New York and triumphing at the Oscars for Shakespeare in Love in a pale pink princess gown by Ralph Lauren to starring in the Ironman superhero franchise and dating famous actors before marrying a rock star (Coldplay’s Chris Martin) and launching a side hustle as a bestselling cookbook author-domestic goddess. Then, once again, she waved her branding wand and through the process of a conscious uncoupling from said rock star, she transformed into a flinty purveyor of very expensive wellness products (or snake oil, depending on your perspective), pushing expensive gear like jade vagina eggs and personal treatments (most recently, rectal ozone steaming). It’s been a ride, and Paltrow has successfully commodified herself and her quirky longevity foibles.
I’m sure that Paltrow often feels like her privacy is invaded, and that she is often persecuted and/or at risk of extortion simply for the fact of her fame. I’m sure Paltrow also feels justified in defending herself; it certainly sounds like she is absolutely certain Sanderson was the one who hit her. Her story and that of the ski instructor who filed the report has stayed consistent throughout the civil trial process, while Sanderson’s and his witness/friend accounts have changed over time. And the doctor’s version of events is more than a little confusing in the retelling.
But none of that really matters. We should all feel badly for someone who, however it happened, lost something important that day.
Will I stop clocking Paltrow’s outfits? Absolutely not: the Row top and skirt with a prim blouse underneath and chunky Prada boots was such a great look, walking the line between respectable Mom and upstanding citizen and an influencer peddling *LKRB (low-key rich bitch, as Town & Country has dubbed it) all-Americana ageless style.
But I will save a thought for Sanderson, because falls are devastating as we age, and many of us can relate — from examples in our own lives, and the lives of our own families — to just how devastating that can be. He has the right to assert his own side of the case, and rail at what he has lost, too.
In the end, he lost a lot on more fronts than the trial itself. And in the weird alternative dimension of Hollywood image crafting, Paltrow has emerged with a reputational burnish. But it would have been more complete had she not been so strident about being right. She was gracious in the end, but is that enough?
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