In 2019, 76-year-old retired optometrist Terry Sanderson filed his initial lawsuit against Deer Valley Resort (Park City Utah), a ski instructor, and Gwyneth Paltrow for $3.1 million. The plaintiff claimed he fell victim to a hit-and-run accident at the hands of Paltrow. That case was dismissed, and the resort and instructor were removed from the claim.
The suit against Paltrow remained, however, with Sanderson alleging that a collision caused by the defendant left him with a permanent traumatic brain injury, four broken ribs, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, emotional distress, and disfigurement. This suit naming Paltrow as the sole defendant demanded $300,000 in damages, with Sanderson alleging Paltrow collided with him from behind.
In turn, Paltrow filed a countersuit, claiming that Sanderson was, in fact, the one who crashed into her and even apologized to her for it. As such, Paltrow sought attorneys’ fees plus $1.00 in damages. She claimed the plaintiff not only caused the accident but then attempted to exploit her fame and wealth once he realized her identity.
The 8-day trial began on March 21, 2023, with the jury finding in favor of Paltrow on March 30th after a three-hour deliberation. The jury found that Paltrow was not liable for the collision. In fact, they found that Sanderson was 100% at fault and Paltrow was the one harmed as a result.
The resulting judgment awarded Paltrow exactly what she asked for. The $1.00 award in economic damages may seem strangely low, but it was the exorbitant amounts of attorneys’ fees awarded in her favor that really add up. These costs pale in comparison to the typical legal costs of a multiyear lawsuit, private security detail, and an expert witness-heavy trial.
Leading Role of Expert Witnesses
Most spectators were drawn to the trial because of our culture’s well-established fascination with celebrity court cases. In the end, though, it was the expert witnesses that stole the show.
Medical experts were the first to testify as to Sanderson’s medical condition prior to and following the collision. Sanderson’s counsel used these experts in an attempt to corroborate the testimony of Sanderson and his family that the crash caused the plaintiff’s memory problems, mood swings, and communication problems. This testimony sought to attribute the plaintiff’s disorientation and memory loss to post-concussion syndrome.
However, it was the expert witnesses for the defense that really stole the show. Multiple medical professionals disputed the cause and extent of Sanderson’s recent mental decline, bolstering the defense attorneys’ arguments that the plaintiff’s health troubles predated the collision. Paltrow’s experts testified that “brain scans suggest Sanderson’s cognitive abilities began to decline years before the crash with Paltrow.”
Radiologist Carl Black’s testimony addressed the cause of the plaintiff’s alleged mental deterioration. Black discussed a brain scan showing microvascular ischemic disease of white matter, which he attributed to the more likely cause of aging.
Neuropsychologist Angela Eastvold then testified that the symptoms complained of by the plaintiff were also symptoms of dementia. She testified that Sanderson’s cognitive decline could just as easily be connected to dementia as it could the collision, especially when combined with anxiety.
Dr. Robert Hoesch, a medical expert, took the stand to offer that Sanderson’s ongoing symptoms have more to do with pre-existing depression and anxiety rather than any concussion sustained during the crash. This is much more common for a man of the plaintiff’s age, said Hoesch. The doctor even opined that the trial itself was causing and exacerbating many of the symptoms: “Suing somebody, going through a trial, a trial that has national recognition, can bring on a lot of anxiety.”
Biomedical engineer and ski collision researcher, Irving Scher, testified that Paltrow’s story is most likely correct as it is the only one that matches the laws of physics. In testimony akin to an advanced math lesson, Dr. Scher explained how likely it is that Paltrow’s version of events is what happened based on every available description of the collision by the parties and witnesses.
Jurors were also captivated by the use of multiple demonstrative exhibits by way of digitally created animations. Experts in this field illustrated various angles of Paltrow’s version of events as well as from the perspective of ski instructor Eric Christiansen.
Attorneys for the plaintiff attempted to use the testimony of the parties and their lay witnesses to rebut the defense’s expert witnesses. For instance, Sanderson’s daughter testified to changes she observed in her father before and after the collision. Reminding the jury of that testimony, the plaintiff’s counsel attempted to discredit Eastvold’s testimony citing dementia and anxiety as the cause. In defending her expert opinion, Eastvold redirected the issue entirely and simply offered reasons why Sanderson’s daughter may have only been looking for changes in behavior because of the accident.
During Hoesch’s cross-examination, the plaintiff’s attorney pointed to a lack of dementia diagnosis and forced Hoesch to admit that he had never met with Sanderson in person, did not conduct a clinical examination of the plaintiff, and his report did not include the rapid changes in Sanderson’s behavior.
Despite the prosecution’s best efforts, their intense cross-examination did not seem to sway the jury away from the expert testimony they heard over the previous eight days. The jury unequivocally found in Paltrow’s favor.
A Case Study in Expert Testimony
It is not always clear just how much impact expert witness testimony has on jurors. In this case, however, they provided exactly what the jury needed to make their determination. Without them, the fact-finders had only the accounts of the parties, both of whom had corroborating witnesses to their respective stories.
Paltrow’s team took a huge gamble in allotting most of their trial time to expert testimony, investing up to $10,000 for certain experts. Both sides had lengthy lists of witnesses that they were forced to trim down in order to complete the trial in time for scheduled jury deliberations. Sanderson’s team chose to rely primarily on the testimony of family, friends, and medical professionals that can support that same testimony. Paltrow’s team, however, made the tactical decision to rely on their experts to show the jury how the veracity of the plaintiff’s story was nearly impossible.
In cases such as this, where a celebrity might have easily settled just to avoid the hassle of trial, we see how expert testimony can overcome incredible obstacles. Sanderson may have won his case if he went up against someone unwilling to invest in expert witnesses. Unfortunately for him, Paltrow and her team knew the power experts have on the stand.