Gwyneth Paltrow trial shines light on Wild West of ski law

Few laws exist governing skiers and snowboarders’ action on Utah’s slopes.

(Jeff Swinger | AP) Gwyneth Paltrow sits in court during an objection in her trial, Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Park City, where she is accused in a lawsuit of crashing into a skier during a 2016 family ski vacation, leaving him with brain damage and four broken ribs. Terry Sanderson claims that the actor-turned-lifestyle influencer was cruising down the slopes so recklessly that they violently collided, leaving him on the ground as she and her entourage continued their descent down Deer Valley Resort, a skiers-only mountain known for its groomed runs, après-ski champagne yurts and posh clientele.

Skiing and snowboarding are inherently dangerous. Even the resorts say so, noting as much in the fine print — which absolves them of any responsibility for accidents — whenever someone purchases a lift ticket or season pass.

In 2016, Oscar-winning actor Gwyneth Paltrow and a retired optometrist named Terry Sanderson got a taste of how risky it can be.

The two collided on a beginner slope at Deer Valley Resort, resulting in injuries to both. They are currently in the midst of a civil trial taking place in a Park City courtroom. Sanderson is suing Paltrow for more than $300,000 for hitting him, which according to his complaint caused him to fall and suffer a brain injury, concussion, four broken ribs and other serious injuries. He also claims Paltrow left the scene while he was still lying in the snow. Paltrow, meanwhile, is countersuing Sanderson and testified on Friday that he hit her and that injuries to her back and knee prevented her from returning to the slopes the day of the accident. She is asking for $1 plus court fees.

The matter of who hit whom will be central to the case. Here’s why: While America’s ski slopes still seem like the Wild West in terms of laws compared to the streets, those who cruise them are expected to adhere to a specific code of conduct. That code is the Skier Responsibility Code, and the first two orders on it are 1) Ski in a manner in which you can avoid other skiers and objects and 2) People below you have the right of way.

“Your goal as a skier or rider is to avoid collisions by following the tenets of Your Responsibility Code, and the best way to do that is by skiing and riding in control,” Adrienne Saia Isaac, a spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association, said in an email, noting she was not commenting specifically about the Paltrow-Sanderson trial. “Give space to others, and be aware of where other people are when cruising around the mountain.”

An inherent risk statute that was passed in 1979 shields Utah ski resorts from being sued by guests who are injured in collisions that occur within their boundaries. No such protections exist for individuals involved in crashes. The closest thing, said Adam Strachan, a lawyer who specializes in ski law within the state, is the Skier Responsibility Code. While it is not law and not enforceable in the state, he said it can carry considerable weight in the courtroom.

Terry Sanderson, the Utah man suing Gwyneth Paltrow, leaves the courtroom following her testimony, Friday, March 24, 2023, in Park City, Utah. He accuses her of crashing into him on a beginner run at Deer Valley Resort, leaving him with brain damage and four broken ribs. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

“When two skiers get in a collision and they start pointing fingers about who’s at fault, who wasn’t, that code kind of is what they look to,” Strachan said. “So although it’s not law, it kind of acts like it’s a law.”

The NSAA first developed the Skier Responsibility Code in 1962 and has tweaked it some throughout the years. Perhaps the most sweeping changes to the code came last year, however, when it was expanded from seven points to 10. The additions included emphasizing that people down-mountain from a skier or rider have the right of way, stressing that people should not ride while impaired by drugs and alcohol and clarifying what should happen after people collide.

In reference to the latter, it recommends that anyone involved in a collision or incident “share your contact information with each other and a ski area employee.”

A witness to the accident and acquaintance of Sanderson, Craig Ramon, said during his deposition that Paltrow stayed at the scene for about 10 minutes. During his testimony Wednesday, he modified that to closer to three or four minutes. He also testified that Paltrow ran into Sanderson.

When she took the stand on Friday, Paltrow said she charged a Deer Valley ski instructor who had been with her to check on Sanderson and give him her name and contact information for her. She said she did not see the exchange happen.

Saia Issac advised that skiers and snowboarders treat a collision on the mountain like they would a car accident. Take a picture of the person’s driver’s license if possible since they may be accessing lifts via a borrowed pass and could give false information.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers brave the high winds at Deer Valley, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

“Remain on scene, exchange information and, if needed, contact ski patrol or flag down a resort employee for help,” she wrote. “There are emergency phones located around the ski area, but also it’s helpful to put ski patrol’s number in your phone.”

Call 911 if an injury is severe, she said.

Strachan said this is one instance where law might come into play, depending on where a ski resort is located. Utah’s Summit and Salt Lake counties both have ordinances dictating a person’s actions after a collision in which an injury was sustained. Other counties in the state have no such laws in place.

“In Summit County and in Salt Lake County, they have ordinances,” Strachan said, “which say that if you’re involved in a skier collision, that you have to stop and render reasonable aid and exchange information.”

Strachan said he also helped Summit County draft a reckless skiing ordinance about 15 years ago. It carries criminal penalties, yet he said he believes the Summit County Sheriff’s office has only levied that charge against one or two people.

“I think as skiing just becomes more and more popular that the police and the district attorneys are going to have to start using that tool more often,” he said.

One of the greatest stumbling blocks in those kinds of investigations is evidence. With thousands of skiers visiting a single resort each day, it can be nearly impossible for ski patrol to track down a reckless skier or boarder even with a detailed description and eye witnesses. Still, as more people ski and snowboard with GoPros and other recording devices on them, footage from those videos could come into play more frequently.

A GoPro video, which may or may not exist, has become a central figure in the Paltrow-Sanderson trial. Paltrow’s attorneys pointed out that an email from Sanderson’s daughter Shae Herath sent after the accident said “I also can’t believe this is all on GoPro.” On Friday morning, Herath testified that she assumed such camera footage existed and never actually saw it.

Paltrow’s lawyers called the footage “the most important piece of evidence” and on Friday morning one of them hinted that it had been located. No such footage had been entered into evidence as of Friday afternoon.

Strachan said the best precaution a person can take to avoid collisions or their repercussions, though, is to ski conscientiously and be aware of their surroundings.

“[Collisions] are an inherent risk and they are part of the sport,” he said, “but that still doesn’t relieve people of the obligation to ski in a reasonable manner.”

Your Responsibility Code (2022)

1) Always stay in control. You must be able to stop or avoid people or objects.

2) People ahead or downhill of you have the right-of-way. You must avoid them.

3) Stop only where you are visible from above and do not restrict traffic.

4) Look uphill and avoid others before starting downhill or entering a trail.

5) You must prevent runaway equipment.

6) Read and obey all signs, warnings, and hazard markings.

7) Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.

8) You must know how and be able to load, ride and unload lifts safely. If you need assistance, ask the lift attendant.

9) Do not use lifts or terrain when impaired by alcohol or drugs.

10) If you are involved in a collision or incident, share your contact information with each other and a ski area employee

— National Ski Areas Association

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