Skiers have probably noticed signs at mountain resorts across the country saying, “Know the code.” They refer to universal rules of conduct that apply to people who practice inherently risky snow sports that involve descending crowded slopes, often at high speed.
But whether they actually understand the code is another question. For those unfamiliar with skiing and snowboarding, it’s probably something they’ve never heard of.
Everything changes as an actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s High-Profile Ski Collision Trial is broadcast live from the courtroom. The actor-turned-lifestyle influencer was accused of crashing into another skier during a 2016 family trip to the upscale ski-only Deer Valley Resort in Utah. The celebrity trial is on day six and is expected to end on Thursday.
For a week, the lawsuit shone a spotlight on the unspoken rules that govern behavior on the slopes. Testimonies repeatedly touched on skier etiquette – specifically the sharing of post-collision contact information and the radiuses of ski turns – during the most high-profile ski crash test in recent history.
There are around 100 code-related lawsuits currently taking place out of the spotlight, but most cases are settled before they go to trial.
Throughout Paltrow’s trial, the word “climb” became synonymous with “guilty,” as the attorneys focused on one of the code’s main tenets: the skier descending or advancing down a slope has the right to passage. “You must avoid them,” the code tells skiers uphill.
Rather than just focusing on who punched who, lawyers for both sides questioned almost every witness — from Paltrow’s private ski instructors to the doctors of the man who is suing Paltrow — about who was downhill. at the time of the collision.
After initially suing Paltrow for $3.1 million, retired optometrist Terry Sanderson is now suing for at least $300,000 in damages. Paltrow countersued for $1 and attorney’s fees, claiming Sanderson met with her.
The issue has become a focal point of the trial, as both sides call on legions of family, friends and doctors testify in Park City – the chic Rocky Mountain resort town that attracts a host of celebrities every year for the Sundance Film Festival.
In the courtroom, lawyers used the term “downhill” hundreds of times each day in an attempt to persuade the jury that the opposing side represents the skier who was uphill and to blame.
Paltrow’s legal team invested heavily in convincing the jury that it was in trouble when the accident happened, even commissioning artists to render their client’s version of events with multiple advanced animations.
Because no video footage of the crash was included as evidence, the memories of a ski buddy of Sanderson’s who last week claimed to be the only eyewitness to the crash have become a sticking point for the Paltrow’s team.
Over objections from Sanderson’s attorneys, the court allowed Paltrow’s team to play three of seven high-resolution animations on a projector placed between the witnesses and the jury stand – showing the eyeball-like prunes of Deer’s Aspens Valley, Paltrow’s ski coats the kids, and packed snow on Bandana, the beginner’s run where Sanderson and Paltrow crashed.
Irving Scher, a biomechanical engineer hired by Paltrow’s defense team, used a dry-erase marker to draw sticks and line graphs, and to jot down force and torque equations to argue that science backed up the Paltrow’s claim that she was descending when the collision began. .
“SP. Paltrow’s version of events conforms to the laws of physics and the way people move and turn,” Scher said Tuesday.
In an equally theatrical display last week, Sanderson’s lawyers tried to drag Paltrow into a re-enactment to poke holes in her claim that Sanderson hit her from behind – but ended up on top when the two collapsed to the ground. His lawyers objected to the actor’s participation in the re-enactment and the judge put a stop to that.
While there are minor differences in state laws when it comes to finding fault, “in court it’s all about who the uphill skier was,” the Denver attorney said, Jim Chalat, who has also argued cases in Utah. His company, Chalat Hatten & Banker, has 20 active collision cases in Colorado alone.
“It’s the uphill skier who is almost always in a position to cause the accident,” Chalat said Monday. “If you’re skiing too fast for your own ability and you can’t carve a turn, and you hit somebody, you’re going to be in trouble.”
However, accidents between skiers are rare. The majority of incidents resulting in injury or death occur when skiers or snowboarders strike fixed objects, usually trees. Collisions involving people only account for about 5% of skier injuries, Chalat said.
In the 2021-2022 season, two deaths were reported as a result of collisions between two skiers, according to the National Ski Areas Association, which developed the first code of skier responsibility in 1962.
Experts in the Paltrow trial called the code “rules of the road” and argued that it is ubiquitous, with a similar label in Canada, Australia and parts of Europe.
Although serious accidents are rare, the snow sports industry has made collision awareness a priority in its safety programs. The responsibility code was recently updated to encourage skiers involved in a collision to share their contact information with each other and with a ski resort employee.
Paltrow was grilled by Sanderson’s attorneys last week for leaving the collision without first exchanging information with Sanderson. She said she made sure one of the family ski instructors took care of it for her.
The majority of ski collision cases are usually settled before going to trial, and very often the payments are covered by one’s home insurance, said Los Angeles attorney John Morgan of Morgan & Morgan.
Very few cases target ski resorts where accidents have occurred due to the inherent dangers of skiing and snowboarding, Morgan said. The mountain where the Paltrow-Sanderson collision happened, Deer Valley, was dropped from the lawsuit in part because skiers are releasing resorts from liability by agreeing to a set of rules on the back of every lift ticket.
“It’s like going to a baseball game and you get hit in the head by a foul ball. You know by sitting there that there is a risk of that happening,” he said.