Gwyneth isn’t alone: ski slopes have become a legal minefield
The world is mesmerised by yet another celebrity televised trial. This time it’s Gwyneth Paltrow in the dock, defending herself against 76-year-old retired optometrist Terry Sanderson, who claims she collided into him causing a brain injury and four broken ribs while skiing uncontrollably in Deer Valley, Utah, in February 2016. Sanderson initially asked for £2.5 million in damages, now reduced to a bargain £245,000. The fact that Sanderson posted a “very happy, smiling picture” of himself tobogganing post-crash led Paltrow’s lawyers to challenge his version of events.
Welcome to Suits Goes Skiing: a true-life legal drama set in the ultra-luxe, high-altitude world of winter sports, mixing Hollywood glamour and top-of-the-range negligence claims.
Paltrow v Sanderson is gripping, true, but not an outlier of a court case; there are clear indications that slippery slopes from the Alps to the Rockies offer endlessly increasing opportunities for litigation – whether genuine or slightly opportunistic.
You want to be careful who you ski into these days (and who skis into you, and where). If it’s the latter, you want them to be Paltrow, though being wealthy yourself also helps if you’re the defendant, when it comes to hiring lawyers to push the case into the long grass.
Unsurprisingly, ski lawsuits are more common in America. American resorts are easier to sue, as many are privately owned by corporations and in general the pay-outs are higher. An English friend who skis in Aspen asks: “Would you rather be in a society that accepts litigation and damages or would you rather be in Europe where they protect institutions?
“If somebody ran into me when they were high and left me with brain damage,” – as happened to an acquaintance of his – “I’d want to sue them to smithereens. In the US, you can get $50 million.”
However, dozens of law firms in the UK offer advice on compensation claims for accidents on the slopes.
To make such a claim, skiers need to demonstrate or prove a breach of a rule, or the negligence of another skier.
Ski litigation specialist Mark Lee, partner and head of the travel law team at Penningtons Manches Cooper, says Europe differs little from the US when it comes down to facts: the conduct of skiers is governed by the International Ski Federation that maintains 10 bullet-proof rules, Lee explains, to help ensure safety on the slopes.
He says: “If the Gwyneth Paltrow case had happened in the Alps, Rule 1 would have required them to behave in such a way that does not endanger or prejudice others.
“Rule 2 obliges individuals to ski in control and to adapt their speed to their personal ability and to the prevailing conditions.”
A skier, Lee explains, should always be able to stop and should slow down in crowded spaces.
Rule 3 requires skiers up-slope to choose a route that does not endanger skiers down-slope. This rule is a key question in Paltrow’s case – who was up or down-slope, and therefore in the wrong. “If an injured party can prove that a skier breached the rules – and that the breach was the cause of the accident – he/she can then recover damages against the negligent skier/their insurer,” says Lee.
Jonathan Wheeler, managing partner at Bolt Burdon Kemp, says that while minor collisions on ski slopes are very common, it is still not straightforward to prove fault in another individual. “Unless the aggrieved party can prove that the other was inherently reckless in their skiing and this caused their injuries, it is likely that any accident will be seen by the courts as just that – an accident, and no one is to blame,” he says, adding: “If someone has a traumatic brain injury, their pay-out could be worth millions; it depends on the injury and the financial circumstances of the person who caused it.
“In such cases, claimants would need to sue the individual who caused the accident to receive the full amount – but if they don’t have the money to make the pay-out, the person who was injured won’t get any compensation.”
This is unlikely to be an issue for Sanderson. But if you are going to sue a wealthy and famous person, such as a billionaire influencer, for an incident on or off the piste, who, as Michael A Pettifer, the leading ski insurance broker in the UK, says, “will be extremely well insured” – you want to make sure your evidence is unimpeachable.
America’s litigiousness is no doubt part of the reason skiers there are generally more rule-abiding. I have skied in America and Europe – in America, if you stop in the middle of the slope (like Paltrow did) someone will tap you on the shoulder and remind you of the rules.
There are also differences in ski areas. US resorts have boundaries, within which everything is patrolled, including ungroomed runs. In Europe, off-piste slopes aren’t made avalanche-secure or patrolled. Guides have told me in confidence that they are often “pushed” to take clients off piste when conditions are not ideal. I have skied with guides who were thoroughly drunk after being taken to a famous resort’s members club. I was terrified being led down a steep off-piste slope as the other guests – also drunk – mocked me.
So are European ski resorts set to follow America and become more regulated? Pettifer says pinning blame on a particular European resort is harder than in the US, though he adds lawsuits are happening more frequently.
Experts say the best ways to avoid a ski injury include never skiing when tired, ill or drunk, staying in your comfort zone and being realistic about your abilities, staying hydrated and warming up and down, always wearing kit, and only stopping at the side of a piste and never over the brow of a hill.
If you do crash while skiing, make sure it’s with someone famous, or rich, or both. And having a law degree would also be advised.