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Gwyneth Paltrow's ski crash testimony may give her advantage with jury as legal experts dissect trial
March 28 2023, 08:00

Gwyneth Paltrow and plaintiff Terry Sanderson have both taken the stand in the ongoing negligence suit filed by the retired optometrist who claims the Oscar winner skied into him nearly eight years ago.

Sanderson initially sued Paltrow for $3.1 million and claimed he was the victim of a hit-and-run on the slopes at the Deer Valley ski resort in 2016. A judge dismissed the claim and removed the exclusive resort and a ski instructor from the lawsuit before Sanderson proceeded with the $300,000 suit. Paltrow filed a countersuit seeking $1 and attorney's fees.

Paltrow, 50, testified Friday that she initially thought the collision was a sexual assault, and noted how it felt like she was "spooning" someone when she fell to the ground with Terry. While on the stand Monday, Sanderson recalled hearing a "blood-curdling scream" moments before Paltrow crashed into him.

Christopher C. Melcher, celebrity lawyer and partner at Walzer, Melcher & Yoda told Fox News Digital that while "both parties testify credibly as to their recollections about the accident, they both cannot be right. One of them crashed into the other." 

He added, "Gwyneth was believable. She was skiing with her family and a ski instructor on a beginner run that she had skied many times before. There is no indication that she was skiing out of control. She vividly recalls being struck from behind by another skier. There are no inconsistencies in her story." 


Throughout five days of testimony, lawyers have argued over Sanderson's memory issues. The 76-year-old outdoor enthusiast previously suffered a stroke and had limited function in his right eye prior to the ski crash. Sanderson claimed Paltrow crashed into him and caused "permanent traumatic brain injury" in addition to four broken ribs. 

"Terry says he was skiing on the right side of the mountain to avoid the crowds and heard a blood-curdling scream before being struck from behind by another skier," Melcher said. "The inference is that Gwyneth was skiing out of control, and she screamed before hitting Terry. But Gwyneth is an experienced skier who has been skiing since she was a child. She should have been able to stop before running into Terry. 

"If she had time to scream, she had time to stop. So that part of his story does not make sense. Also, Terry admitted having an eyesight problem with his right eye, which could explain a failure to see Gwyneth."


He questioned Craig Ramon's testimony, the only eyewitness to see the crash, calling his time on the stand "vague and inconsistent." Melcher added, "He was further away from Terry when the accident occurred and could have mixed up who hit who."

When it comes to Paltrow winning the case simply because she's Hollywood elite? Melcher isn't so sure the jury will pick favorites.

"I don’t see a celebrity advantage here. There was a question whether Gwyneth would be relatable enough to the jury, but she performed well on the witness stand. Awkward and bizarre questions were asked of Gwyneth by Terry’s attorney, and Gwyneth answered them politely. The cross-examination was a disaster because no damaging admissions were extracted, and it made Gwyneth likable by being kind to Terry’s lawyer, despite the strange questioning."

Former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani noted that "Paltrow has the lead" so far on day six of the eight-day trial.


"Paltrow and Sanderson’s testimony could not have been more different. It’s your classic he said-she said case," the West Coast Trial Lawyers attorney said. "And both parties have independent witnesses supporting their respective accounts of what happened. Sanderson has Craig Ramon, and Paltrow has ski instructor Eric Christiansen, as well as her family members."

He added, "In these types of cases with completely contradictory evidence, juries often make decisions on who they think is more likable and credible. Paltrow has the advantage because she’s a celebrity and is only asking for $1 in damages, plus attorney fees. Jurors love celebrities."

Rahmani said that the most damaging evidence against Terry was when he emailed his daughters after the collision saying "I'm famous!"

"The happy picture he posted on social media on a toboggan after the crash didn’t help either," Rahmani said of the selfie Sanderson snapped while being transported down the mountain by ski patrol. "Paltrow’s lawyers have a good argument that it was a minor accident and that Sanderson’s injuries were preexisting and caused by his stroke.


"So far, Paltrow has the lead, and I expect that lead to grow as she puts on her case-in-chief."

Criminal defense attorney Janet E. Johnson initially thought it "seemed inconceivable" that Paltrow didn't settle the lawsuit as soon as it happened, but upon watching Sanderson's testimony, also changed her mind.

"Sanderson, while seeming like a nice man, did not come across as someone who suffered $300,000 in damages," Johnson said. "When asked by his lawyer about damages he suffered, his first answer was ‘I can’t ski anymore,’ although he actually explained that he has tried several times. It took his lawyer three attempts and leading her witness to get him to talk about physical injuries, which he ultimately admitted were no longer substantial."

Throughout the trial, the plaintiff's lawyers have called expert witnesses to testify on behalf of Terry's personality changes from the traumatic brain injury he claimed to have suffered from the collision.

"Terry had been a very high-functioning, high-energy person," Dr. Wendell Gibby testified. "Every day he was doing lots of things. Meeting groups, wine tasting, skiing, volunteering.

"But, after his accident, he deteriorated abruptly, and many of the activities that he used to do, he stopped doing, like, for the most part.… He normally could, you know, handle multiple projects at once, but he would have to sit there and focus very hard on one task. He would go to a Home Depot, for example, and forget why he was there. He also experienced a worsening of his depression. And, so, those are very typical hallmarks of someone who has had a traumatic injury."


The jury heard from two of Sanderson's three daughters last week. Polly Grasham and Shae Herath both testified about changes they have observed in their father's personality since the ski collision.

Grasham spoke about the moment she realized something was "terribly wrong" with her father, about a year or year and a half after the accident.

Johnson did find cause for concern with one part of Gwyenth's recollection about the collision. 

"I think the most problematic part of Paltrow’s testimony was when she suggested she thought Sanderson was trying to sexually assault her," she said. "I’m not sure anyone who has skied would buy that that was a legitimate concern."

Adding to the unique courtroom situation is the "inherently tricky" position of suing a celebrity, especially after the email was found where Sanderson said he was "famous."

"While Sanderson tried to explain that he doesn’t ‘worship’ celebrities like some people, that statement is going to hurt him," Johnson said. "I would imagine the defense will argue in closing that this would never have been a lawsuit if Paltrow wasn’t perceived as a rich celebrity, and Sanderson’s attorney walked into that trap when she asked Paltrow about her friendship with Taylor Swift and Christmas gifts she’s given the celebrity."

She added, "Paltrow has to walk a fine line as well, and her choice of outfits is just one example of how this multimillionaire celebrity is trying to be relatable. The jury may be impressed with her because she’s famous, but they may also resent that, and her trying to act ‘normal’ could backfire. 

"Also, $300,000 in damages, while seemingly excessive in this case, may seem like a drop in the bucket to the jury who will know she has the money to pay. But, before they get to that point they have to find Paltrow at fault for the accident and, if I had to gamble on this, I would say they won’t do that."

Sanderson accused the Goop founder of skiing off after the accident, which left him with a "permanent traumatic brain injury, four broken ribs, pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of life," along with emotional distress and disfigurement, according to the lawsuit.

Fox News Digital's Lauryn Overhultz contributed to this report.