In what was the second highest profile legal deliberation this week, jurors determined on Thursday that Gwyneth Paltrow was not liable for damages in a ski crash between her and a retired optometrist, Terry Sanderson, causing him, he alleged, a traumatic brain injury. Mr. Sanderson was denied the $300,000 he sued for, and Ms. Paltrow, whose net worth is reportedly north of $200 million, was awarded the amount she requested in a countersuit: $1.
Unlike in many other courtroom spectacles, such as the Alex Murdaugh criminal trial that ended a few weeks ago, in the Paltrow/Sanderson civil trial, neither party inflicted or suffered life-altering harm from the events in question — unless you count Mr. Sanderson’s claim that the accident has impeded his ability to taste wine properly, or Ms. Paltrow’s lament that she lost half a day of skiing.
As a working person who pretty much never has half a day to ski and can’t taste wine properly even with all of my mental faculties intact, I have trouble mustering up much sympathy for either of them. As a taxpayer whose money supports and pays for the machinery of our judicial system, I’m irritated that this trial happened and that until Thursday it was dominating what seemed like every major newscast.
When a wealthy, famous person ends up in front of court cameras, it’s a reminder that we have a two-tiered justice system that overwhelmingly favors the rich and disproportionately punishes the poor and people of color. This case has also reminded us that the justice system is easily exploited in other ways, some of which are wasteful and stupid. Why must we be forced to ponder whether or not Ms. Paltrow is friends with Taylor Swift?
Ms. Paltrow gleefully embodies the caricature of herself that has been repeatedly sketched in pop culture — oblivious and impervious to the mundanities of life that most people encounter, the kind that can be avoided with money and a staff. Many wealthy defendants arrive in court in dress and demeanor designed to make them more relatable. Ms. Paltrow arrived in clothes that cost more than my monthly mortgage payments, carrying a Smythson notebook that retails for $325. This, too, is part of her brand, which assures customers that most corporeal indignities can be remedied with an assortment of products available on goop.com. This combination of obscene wealth and an affinity for baroque lifestyle routines gives Ms. Paltrow a Marie Antoinette vibe — if Marie Antoinette thought the hungry should opt for bone broth.
Mr. Sanderson came across as only slightly more relatable. The injuries he says he sustained, which he claims impaired his cognitive functions, “turned him into ‘a self-imposed recluse’” and generally ruined his life to the tune of $3.1 million, which is what he initially sought (later reduced to $300,000). But those injuries did not seem to prevent him from taking subsequent vacations, hiking, riding camels and enjoying time with friends. He did not help his case when he ranted on the stand about celebrities trafficking children on islands, a QAnon-inflicted conspiracy theory. That absurdity was only eclipsed by his original claim that Ms. Paltrow had been skiing “out of control” on the bunny slopes and maliciously plowed into him — as if she were a Fendi-clad assassin taking people out with weaponized Rossignols and a general air of superiority.
You could be excused for thinking that Gwyneth Paltrow might have almost met her match in the sort-of-as-entitled optometrist. But as observed from other altitudes, all of this ostentation and pettiness is particularly grating. Going to trial is expensive, and efforts of people like Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Sanderson to seek justice are partly subsidized by taxpayers — mostly, in this case, Utah residents who are not responsible for tourists who ski badly. In 2020, tort costs — the cost of civil cases where one party incurs liability for harming another party — in America were around $3,621 per household, and some portion of that is borne by those of us who could not possibly afford to drag a celebrity into court for a ski collision.
To be fair, there are plenty of civil cases that deserve to go to trial, and the expense of doing so sometimes results in unfair settlements, which actually is another example of a two-tiered justice system. When going to trial is cost prohibitive for a plaintiff and this results in a subpar outcome, it’s an injustice. Ms. Paltrow could have settled and did not because she could afford to take the case to trial and wanted to prove her innocence, perhaps to avoid a future shakedown by someone prepared to extract money from her.
We deserve a system of justice that protects people who have suffered genuine injury through the negligence of powerful people and institutions, and that protects people who are vulnerable to potential harm. In 2018 Ms. Paltrow’s Goop agreed to pay $145,000 in civil penalties for claiming without evidence that vaginal “yoni” eggs — egg-shaped rocks made of jade and quartz — that the company was selling delivered medical benefits. There were no reports of the eggs harming anyone — at least not via their intended use, which does not involve throwing them at high velocities — but the potential for harm via misleading promises to consumers made it important to force the company to remove those claims. The judgment against Goop for “unsubstantiated claims” could prove that celebrities are not immune from justice.
If Mr. Sanderson experienced harm, his lawyers failed to convince the jury. The only people who deserve sympathy in this case are the jurors who had to take off from work and arrange child care to serve for little compensation, and had to sit through hours of testimony about the physics of skiing at luxury resorts and why Mr. Sanderson can no longer tell a 2005 Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru from a 2009 Bonnes-Mares.
After the verdict was announced, Ms. Paltrow stood up to leave the courtroom, and as she made her way out, she leaned over to Mr. Sanderson. “I wish you well,” she said. If only the rest of us could say the same, about either of them.
Elizabeth Spiers, a contributing Opinion writer, is a journalist and digital media strategist.
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