There is nothing noteworthy about a ski-and-run trial — until a celebrity is attached to it.
After eight days of arguments, the eight-member jury agreed on Thursday that Gwyneth Paltrow was not liable for a 2016 ski collision with a man who claims she careened into him on a bunny slope in Utah. As thousands of Americans watched in real time, the jury decided that it was not Paltrow but Terry Sanderson, 76, who was “one hundred percent at fault.” The retired optometrist caused Paltrow harm, the jury said, and owes her one dollar as compensation of economic damages.
The ski collision occurred in Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah — known for World Cup ski races, the 2002 Winter Olympics and the Sundance Film Festival.
Sanderson said Paltrow rear-ended him on a beginners slope, and didn’t stop to help. Citing physical and mental injuries from the collision, he sued her for $3.1 million in 2019, later reducing the amount to $300,000.
Paltrow could’ve settled out of court; many celebrities tend to take that legal route. Instead, claiming that Sanderson collided into her and caused her to lose “half a day of skiing,” she countersued for one dollar and attorney fees, and millions tuned in to watch.
Here’s why America was fascinated by the trial.
America’s obsession with celebrities on the stand
Our society is and always has been obsessed with celebrity trials.
“We can go as far back as Clara Bow from the early 1900s, she was the most popular film star of her time,” said Emily Carman, a film historian and professor at Chapman University. “Bow had to testify in 1931 in a civil case involving her secretary and Americans and the media couldn’t have enough.”
The trial was held “amidst a carnival-like atmosphere with thousands of people milling around the L.A. County Courthouse. The trial was reported as news around the world,” said Justice Denied Magazine.
Carman said that, even though most celebrities are on social media, audiences are eager to see different sides of celebrity personhood. “When we see an actor on trial, their celebrity is conflated with their personhood and that is intriguing,” she said.
With Paltrow, said Carman, the interest is even more pronounced as she is an Oscar-winner, a businesswoman and someone with Hollywood pedigree. “You can’t ascend much higher than Paltrow,” she said. “And then to see her involved in this nitpicky civil case, that’s fascinating.”
Some experts think that audiences are enraptured by celebrity trials such as Paltrow’s because it allows them to peek at the wealthy leisure class who can afford ski vacations in the first place, as well as the possibility of seeing powerful people exposed.
“Paltrow’s rebranding of herself as a lifestyle guru and some of the backlash that has come as a result of that can make it pleasurable to see her (or any wealthy celebrity, for the matter) taken down a peg,” said Alice Leppert, a media professor at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.
The scrutiny of female celebrity court fashion
Everyone has comments and questions on what Paltrow wore to court. Her outfit choices inspired a new term: courtcore. The New York Times’s Vanessa Freidman described courtcore as a precedent-setting, new style subgenre.
Various other newspapers, including The Washington Post, also remarked on Paltrow’s fashion choices during the trial. Paltrow’s “soft, gentle silhouettes” in court show “respect and compliance, but only as far as was necessary. Like she was eager to get all this unpleasantness squared away and get on with the rest of her day,” Ashley Fetters Maloy wrote in The Post.
Celebrity study experts told The Post that America’s fascination with watching celebrities on trial is not gendered — except when it comes to scrutinizing what female celebrities wore to court.
“If we go back to the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial — we knew what Heard was wearing to court on a regular basis,” said Carman. “But few of us are likely to remember what Depp wore, and he wore some remarkable outfits.”
Carman said that judging a celebrity’s character based on their clothes is more at play with female celebrities than male ones, and this seeps into court cases.
However, clothes are considered a mode of self-expression, especially for celebrities known to set fashion trends. Some experts thought that the message Paltrow was conveying through her outfits was that she was exasperated by the trial.
“She’s quite dressed down for court (I would say especially for a celebrity) and not putting forth that polished sort of image we would typically expect from her,” said Erin Meyers, co-editor of the Celebrity Studies Journal. “Don’t get me wrong, she’s wearing very expensive designer clothes, but to me, it looks like she just can’t be bothered with this trial process.”
The moments pop culture will remember
A handful of exchanges at the trial created space for themselves in the annals of pop culture.
Most of them had to do with Sanderson’s lawyers interacting with Paltrow. Sanderson’s attorney, Kristin VanOrman, asking Paltrow how tall she is, whether she is a good tipper and if she is good friends with Taylor Swift were deemed absurd and awkward by people following the trial.
“If in some roundabout way she [VanOrman] was trying to prove a point, she failed,” said Anabella Poland, a professor at Montclair State University’s School of Communication and Media. “The exchange of compliments and jokes between the two was just bizarre.”
Another moment that viewers are unlikely to forget is when Paltrow explained what the collision had cost her: “Well! I lost half a day of skiing,” said the actor. “The SNL skit pretty much writes itself with her comment,” said Poland. “It’s one of the most meme-able moments in celebrity trials’ history.”
A moment that should not have been awkward in a post #MeToo era, but was perceived as such, was when Paltrow described her experience of the collision.
“Two skis came between my skis, forcing my legs apart,” Paltrow said. “And then, there was a body pressing against me and there was a very strange, grunting noise. My brain was trying to make sense of what was happening. I thought, ‘Is this a practical joke? Is someone doing something perverted? This is really, really strange.’”
While some on social media agreed with her depiction of the event and said their mind would also veer toward sexual assault, others said that if she really was rear-ended this is not what she would have been thinking about.
But perhaps the most enduring moment of the trial came at its conclusion. In a meme-worthy moment, Paltrow walked to where Sanderson was seated and, while placing a gentle hand on his back, said something indecipherable to him.
“I wish you well,” she said, according to Entertainment Tonight, while others joked that she leaned in to tell Sanderson, “Use code GOOP for 15 percent off.”