All that for a dollar?
Nah, Gwyneth Paltrow ’s motivation to go to trial to fight a lawsuit accusing her of sending a fellow skier “absolutely flying” at a posh Utah ski resort in 2016 was about vindication.
She got it when a jury found her not at fault in the collision, granting her exactly the $1 she sought in her countersuit. As a court reporter read the verdict, the courtroom gallery made up mostly of her supporters exhaled while Paltrow sat next to her lawyer intently and avoided displaying emotion that could be interpreted as surprise or gloating.
She might have come out ahead in the court of public opinion, too, Hollywood lawyers and publicists say.
“It’s not often that you go through the whole expense and time and bother of litigation for a dollar,” said Tre Lovell, a Los Angeles lawyer who handles many celebrity cases. “But she wanted to turn this into a positive as a way of saying ‘I’m not going to get taken advantage of,’ and ‘I’m a good person.’”
The actor-turned-influencer avoided engaging in any memorable missteps during the eight-day trial that she attended every day as viewers in Park City, Utah, and around the world watched closely. She even ended things on a classy note when she stopped before leaving court to lean over and put her hands on her accuser’s shoulder to wish him best of luck.
“She came across on the stand very well,” said Emily D. Baker, legal analyst and former Los Angeles deputy district attorney. “She was personable, she was firm, but she wasn’t ever aggressive. And it actually came across that she had empathy for what this plaintiff has gone through.”
When 76-year-old Terry Sanderson filed the lawsuit in 2019, it was the kind of case that seemed to scream for the quick, confidential settlement typical in lawsuits against celebrities. Instead, it endured for four years through trial.
“I felt that acquiescing to a false claim compromised my integrity,” Paltrow posted to her 8.3 million Instagram followers after the verdict.
Sanderson himself questioned afterward whether the lawsuit was worth it and said he believed that people tend to naturally trust celebrities like Paltrow.
Holly Baird, a publicist who handles major celebrity crises including many court cases, says that while trials have potential downsides, there is no reason for famous people to avoid them at all costs.
“I didn’t see this being a downfall for her,” Baird said. “This isn’t like a murder case or anything. It humanizes her. People have similar stories.”
There were moments of potential pitfall, as when Paltrow answered a question about damages by saying she “had lost half a day of skiing,” acknowledged paying nearly $9,000 for her then-small kids’ skiing instruction and explained why she let her ski instructor stay behind to check on Sanderson and exchange information. As he waited to be tobogganed down the mountain by ski patrol, she followed her children Moses and Apple down the mountain, testifying that she was accustomed to having things done for her.
But the honest answer may not have done her damage.
“They live in a different world and it becomes their normal, but people are going to assume that,” Lovell said. “You can have that and people are going to know it and accept. You’ve just got to come across as humble.”
“I think she was authentic,” she said. “She’s with her children, she’s worried about them.”
The jury apparently found Paltrow likeable enough, returning after just 2 1/2 hours to give her a resounding win that blamed the collision 100% on Sanderson.
His lawsuit had sought “more than $300,000, though in closing arguments, his attorneys estimated damages as more than $3.2 million.
Trial lawyers are known to regularly engage in seemingly friendly repartee with witnesses to try and cultivate sympathy among the jury. But many observers thought Sanderson’s attorney Kristin VanOrman did the actor a major favor when she at times appeared charmed by Paltrow when she was on the stand.
When VanOrman asked Paltrow her height and she responded “just under 5’10”,” VanOrman replied, “I am so jealous! I think I’m shrinking. I have to wear heels just to make it to 5’5″.”
VanOrman’s efforts to flag for the jury that Paltrow was larger than the man she collided with were overshadowed when the actor said back: “They’re very nice.”
Lovell said it was so “bizarre and ineffective” that he thought VanOrman was Paltrow’s attorney when he first tuned in.
“That was ridiculous,” she said. “The jury sees that and thinks she must not be that bad if the opposing attorney likes her. She seemed star struck.”
Once among the most ubiquitous leading women in Hollywood, the Oscar winner has taken fewer and fewer roles in recent years. Many now identify her more with her wellness-and-lifestyle company Goop, whose offerings have brought her ridicule in some quarters as the quintessential out-of-touch peddler of celebrity woo-woo.
But that also makes Paltrow her own boss, who is not beholden to others for work, and has brought her a devoted set of customer-fans.
“Gwyneth has such a cult following in the lifestyle and wellness brand, and people love to see another side of their life like this,” Baird said. “I think her PR team should be using it. She’s getting way more TV time than she would any other way.”
Paltrow’s fight to clear her name resonated with many of her fans, including those who braved blizzards to fill the gallery of the Park City courtroom for two weeks.
“When you are a celebrity you know that you’re going to get some of this, but that was totally over the top,” said Ann Malcolm, a Park City local who enjoys skiing at Deer Valley, the mountain where Paltrow and Sanderson crashed.
A crowd made up of locals and some who traveled from California to catch a glimpse of the trial snapped selfies, showed each other mockups of t-shirts that read “#Gwynnocent” and commended Paltrow for being both gracious and fighting to clear her name.
“He thought it would be an easy payday,” said David Madow, a retired dentist and avid skier who attended multiple days of court proceedings. “I was impressed with the fact that she said ’No, I’m not gonna do that.”
—Andrew Dalton And Sam Metz, The Associated Press