Gwyneth Paltrow’s ski-and-run trial is a reminder that stars are not like us

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow siting in a courtroom.
Gwyneth Paltrow claims that she did not ski into a retired 76-year-old optometrist. | Rick Bowmer/Getty Images

Countersuing an optometrist for a ski slope collision is basically Gwyneth Paltrow’s White Lotus audition.

This week marked the return of one of the most riveting shows featuring affluent white people, the limits of their kindness, the destruction they’re capable of, and the power they wield. No, it’s not that one. Or that one.

Welcome to the second week of the Gwyneth Paltrow hit-and-run ski trial.

Seventy-six-year-old retired optometrist Terry Sanderson is suing Paltrow, the extremely wealthy, Oscar-winning actress/businesswoman/nepotism baby, alleging that a collision with her on a bunny slope in Park City, Utah, on a fateful February day in 2016 ruined his life. Paltrow countersued, claiming that the man actually barreled downhill into her, not seeing her until it was too late. Some of his injuries, she and her lawyers allege, predate the collision. She claims his lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to leverage her fame into a payday.

And while the ongoing civil court case will determine who is liable and pays up — Sanderson is asking for $300,000 in damages while Paltrow is asking for a symbolic $1 and the legal fees — the judgment has all but been eclipsed by Paltrow’s blistering testimony on the stand.

During her cross-examination on March 24, Paltrow took the stand and, under oath, stated that she isn’t friends with Taylor Swift, that she is a shade under 5-foot-10 but shrinking, and that she yelled “you’re skiing directly into my fucking back” when the septuagenarian was reeling on the snowy ground, flailing after they knocked into one another.

The randomness of the questioning combined with Paltrow’s frank answers have given the trial a surreal feel, like a prestige dark comedy on HBO designed to spoof the rich. It could pass as a sharp, dark bit of satire on American wealth and celebrity if it weren’t, you know, actual life.

The threshold between satire and reality, the absurd and the logical, the unattainable and the familiar, is apparently Gwyneth Paltrow on a Park City beginner slope. In a world where we’re told that celebrities are just like us and celebrities themselves tell us they’re just like us, Paltrow’s ski trial is a blazing, mesmerizing reminder that, actually, they’re not like us at all.

Did Gwyneth Paltrow ski into an aging optometrist? Or did an aging optometrist ski into Gwyneth Paltrow?

The Park City trial is attempting to determine who hit whom on the slopes of the Deer Valley ski resort on February 26, 2016. Sanderson and Paltrow both allege that the other skied into their back, and that each was further down the slope from the other skier. Physiologically, humans have one front side and one backside, so it would seem to be close to impossible for this collision to happen as per the details of both Paltrow and Sanderson’s accounts.

Sanderson’s lawsuit claims that Paltrow skied “out of control” and barreled into him, which resulted in four broken ribs, a brain injury, and “other serious injuries.” His lawyers allege that Paltrow committed a hit-and-run, whooshing away after the incident, and that ski instructor Eric Christiansen, who was teaching Paltrow’s family at the time, filed a false report about the events of the accident. Initially, Sanderson sought $3.1 million in damages but was dismissed. He is now seeking $300,000 in damages.

“Before this crash, Terry was a charming, outgoing, gregarious person,” Sanderson’s lawyer, Lawrence D. Buhler, said in his opening statement last week. “After the crash, he’s no longer charming.”

Rick Bowmer/Getty Images
Gwyneth Paltrow frowning.

Paltrow’s lawyers, in her 2019 countersuit, say that around 11:55 am that day, Paltrow and her family were skiing on an easier slope called the “Bandana” when Sanderson hit her from behind. Paltrow did not see or hear him approach and that Sanderson explained “that he had not seen Ms. Paltrow” while he was skiing. After the collision, which Paltrow describes as a “full body blow,” Paltrow “quit skiing for the day even though it was still morning.” The lawsuit also states that Sanderson apologized, that Christiansen filed the incident report in which he stated that Sanderson said Paltrow “appeared” right in front of Sanderson, and that Sanderson told Christiansen and a man named Craig Roman, a member of Sanderson’s ski group, that he was fine.

Paltrow is countersuing for $1, an amount ostensibly designed to show that this is really about principle for Paltrow. She is also suing to cover the legal fees associated with the case.

The key to this trial — and what both Sanderson’s lawsuit and Paltrow’s countersuit are trying to establish — is which party was downhill at the time of the collision. According to the safety code from the National Ski Areas Association, a trade association for ski area owners and operators, people downhill have the right of way and it’s up to the person uphill to avoid them. It’s not unlike how common car accidents are usually assessed: Given no other circumstances, usually the person behind is at fault.

Paltrow’s counter carefully points out that she hadn’t seen Sanderson, indicating that he hit her from behind, which would place him uphill. It also paints Sanderson as a careless skier, which is why he was surprised to run into Paltrow and apologized for hitting her. Sanderson’s account claims that Paltrow hit him, skied away, and that the false report was made.

That will all ultimately determine whether Paltrow will receive $1 or pay out $300,000. Around 20 witnesses, including medical experts and Paltrow’s children, Apple and Moses, are expected to testify. But the ultimate outcome feels somewhat beside the point, however, as it’s the spectacle of the trial that really takes center stage

The trial is proving that Gwyneth Paltrow is an extremely, hilariously rich celebrity

While both legal teams are trying to determine fault and paint a clear picture of who hit whom on Deer Valley’s Bandana beginner slope, there’s a bigger story at hand that’s eclipsing legal ramifications of the case: Gwyneth Paltrow’s answers during her cross-examination.

Sanderson — who, it could be mentioned, was also skiing at the notably pricey resort — and his legal team are attempting to paint Paltrow as an out-of-touch celeb who would enlist ski professionals to cover up her own recklessness. Paltrow knows she’s not beating the “out-of-touch” charges, so she’s brought back the time-honored technique of dismissing her accuser like she does her biggest critics: leaning right into the stereotypes.

Paltrow’s answers about her life and her response about being skied into have drawn attention for her frankness. Headed into the trial, there was perhaps an expectation that Paltrow would try and portray herself as a more sympathetic character to win the case — a common legal strategy. What are trials if not performances intended to convince a jury or judge, and who’s more capable of turning in a believable performance than an Oscar-winning actress?

Gwyneth Paltrow sitting in a courtroom wearing a white sweater.
Rick Bowmer/AFP via Getty Images
Regardless of whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow is liable for the injuries the septuagenarian optometrist suffered, this sweater is fantastic.

But any expectation that Paltrow would have tried to come off as more civilian can be chalked up to the fact that we regular folk have been told over and over — especially through social media — that celebrities are “just like us.” They fill up on gas. They eat fast food. They hike. They drink Dunkin’ coffee. They photograph corny sunsets.

Paltrow’s answers and the very facts of this trial are a stark reminder that no, celebrities are not “just like us.” Despite constant reassurances, celebrity relatability is all an illusion concocted by celebrities, or at least by the people they hire to make them relatable. That Gwyneth Paltrow is so famous, privileged, and removed from everyday life that she isn’t even like any other celebrity is, counterintuitively, a refreshing and entertaining glimpse into how rich people move through this world.

To start, Paltrow dressed the part of a glamorous ski assassin, in luxe pieces — a white chunky turtleneck, a double-breasted gray suit, a black collared top with the whisper of a puffed sleeve — in trim, often classic silhouettes.

When asked by Sanderson attorney Kristin VanOrman how the collision affected her, Paltrow replied without hesitation and with deadpan earnestness, “Well, I lost half a day of skiing.”

VanOrman’s client is claiming serious bodily harm and traumatic brain injury. The trajectory of his life, he claims, was altered negatively by his accident with Paltrow. For Paltrow, it was an afternoon she’ll never get back on the Bandana slope.

Paltrow’s answer invites odd calculus. Like, what does a half-day of skiing mean for Paltrow? How many half-days of skiing are left in her life? What could Paltrow and her family have accomplished in another half-day of skiing? Is Paltrow’s half-day of skiing different from regular people’s half-day of skiing?

VanOrman’s cross continued, asking about the symbolic $1 in damages that Paltrow is asking for. Paltrow’s $1 countersuit mirrors one that Taylor Swift filed and won in 2017 against a radio host who groped her. VanOrman asked if the $1 gesture was because Paltrow was friends with Swift. Paltrow’s lawyer objected, but was overruled.

“We are friendly. I’ve taken my kids to one of her concerts before, but we don’t talk very often,” Paltrow said. “I would not say we’re good friends.”

Again, Paltrow’s answer invites more questions about her life. Is Taylor Swift saved on her phone? How not “very often” does she talk to Swift? Does Swift feel the same way about Paltrow? I wish Judge Kent Holmberg allowed further questioning because now I am enthralled by this relationship that I had never thought about so deeply.

Perhaps the most riveting portion of VanOrman’s questioning was when she asked Paltrow to clarify that she yelled at Sanderson while he was on the ground. “I said, ‘you skied directly into my f’ing back,” Paltrow replied, deadpan, censoring herself. “I was yelling at him,” she continued, her face sharpening at the word “yelling.”

Sanderson’s attorney also asked about her height (Paltrow says she’s 5-foot-10 but “shrinking”), and declared that Paltrow was “small but mighty” and then recanted the statement saying that Paltrow was “not that small.” Paltrow, whose thin frame always seems to come up in press coverage, in response to the rescinded “small” comment, chuckled through pursed lips.

Paltrow’s answers raise the question of how much this is all worth to the actress. The $300,000 asked for is a drop in the bucket for a woman whose lifestyle brand Goop is worth an estimated $250 million.

Relatability is not part of that profitable brand; Paltrow is also the same woman who has talked at length about the miracle of bone broth (water boiled with animal bones) and vagina-scented candles. Her mom is the incomparable actress Blythe Danner and her dad is Bruce Paltrow, a Hollywood director. She has openly forgotten, on camera, which Avengers movies she has starred in, some of the highest grossing films of all time.

Rick Bowmer/Getty Images
Gwyneth Paltrow amused.

This famous woman has a ridiculously affluent life. So it shouldn’t be shocking that some of her answers under oath reflect her extreme privilege. If this trial, monetarily, means nothing to her, then she has nothing to lose by answering honestly — especially since part of her claim is that she is so rich and famous that Sanderson sees her as a meal ticket.

Gwyneth Paltrow admitting she’s not an average person, not even in the same stratosphere of existence, might be the most Gwyneth Paltrow thing Gwyneth Paltrow could ever do — and it’s always worked for her before. That it’s come as she’s on trial for possibly inflicting a traumatic brain injury on a retired optometrist is even more outrageous and only adds to her lore.

Satires meant to skewer the lives of the ultrawealthy have been a hit in recent years: White Lotus, Succession, The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, and on and on. The people who live such lavish lives generally avoid admitting to their luck. Sanderson’s lawyers likely expected the actress to simply pay up.

Paltrow, however, has never shied away from her bizarre and expensive reality. In fact, she’s made a mint off of it. What’s $300,000 to Gwyneth Paltrow? Not much. But what’s a bunch of free lifestyle PR? That’s priceless.

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