A Ruined Day on the Luxurious Slopes of Utah
Academy Award winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow was one of America’s most beloved sweethearts in the 1990’s, headlining some of our favorite movies: Emma and Shakespeare in Love. Her eyebrows have recovered from that decade better than ours, but her reputation has not fared quite as well. Since the launch of her luxe lifestyle and wellness brand, Goop, Ms. Paltrow has become a polarizing figure in the court of public opinion. Some argue she is now the portrait of an out-of-touch, privileged celebrity. Ms. Paltrow has made numerous comments in recent years that have seemed blissfully unaware at best and tone-deaf at worst.[i] And so, when she was sued by a retired optometrist who claimed her “reckless” skiing resulted in a crash where he suffered a traumatic brain injury, broken ribs, and loss of consciousness after she hurled expletives at him and left him “lying in the snow” without calling for help, many spectators assumed she would be raked across the coals by the jury, suffering the same fate as many defendants on the receiving end of a Nuclear Verdict®.[ii] However, the Utah jury agreed with Ms. Paltrow’s version of events, ultimately returning an unanimous verdict granting her the $1 plus attorney’s fees she requested in her countersuit.[iii]
The trial was widely publicized, and even leading up to the jury’s verdict, public opinion did not appear to view Ms. Paltrow’s testimony (or the case) kindly. While some pundits were decidedly offended (referring to Ms. Paltrow as an “extremely wealthy…nepotism baby”[iv]), the public seemed to, at a minimum, enjoy the true spectacle of a trial focused on a hit-and-run at a posh ski resort involving a Hollywood superstar and a former army captain septuagenarian.[v] As a result of the pervasive trial coverage, the moments leading to the verdict are well-documented and ripe for examination.
What that examination reveals (aside from the apparent chicness of large glasses and muted turtlenecks) is this: authenticity, reasonableness, personalizing the defendant, and accepting responsibility are tools that any defendant can employ. After all, if the founder of Goop herself can convince a jury and the world that she is reasonable and likeable, why not a small trucking company without celebrity sway?
How Did Ms. Paltrow Come Out On Top?: A Look at Authenticity and Defusing Juror Anger
While the plaintiff in Ms. Paltrow’s case was only seeking $300,000 in damages, were the jury to award that, it could arguably have been considered a Nuclear Verdict® given the number was so disproportionate to the facts and the medical expenses.[vi] While many factors are at play when such a verdict is delivered, the number one driver of Nuclear Verdicts® is juror anger.[vii] As a result, a defendant’s best hope at avoiding a Nuclear Verdict® is to defuse that anger.[viii] Plaintiff’s attorneys are skilled in cultivating it, but there are certainly traits that make their jobs easier, many of which were present in this case.
To start, the likeability of a plaintiff can go far in engendering sympathy, which quickly turns to anger when the jury feels that plaintiff has been wronged by a flippant defendant. The plaintiff in this case was an older gentleman with a relatable and compelling story: he was a retired optometrist who previously served our country in the armed forces and was enjoying a vacation when he was unexpectedly injured. In trial, he testified that moments before he was struck from behind, he heard a “blood-curdling scream” which indicated to him that someone was “out of control.”[ix] He described being sent “flying” into the snow, and then described the toll his injuries have taken, at one point breaking down in tears as he struggled to remember details.[x] These facts alone would give any defense attorney concern, but when the jury heard about Ms. Paltrow’s response to the crash, juror anger was all but guaranteed.
When Ms. Paltrow took the stand, she told a different version of events, asserting plaintiff ran into her.[xi] However, plaintiff and Ms. Paltrow agreed that after the collision, Ms. Paltrow yelled an expletive at him and then left the scene while he was still down and injured without identifying herself or asking if he needed medical attention.[xii] Adding insult to literal injury, when asked how the collision impacted her vacation, Ms. Paltrow responded coolly, “Well, I lost half a day of skiing.”[xiii] The jury also heard Ms. Paltrow took the remainder of that day to get a massage.[xiv]
These answers, especially when given by a defendant who is already regarded as extremely wealthy and out-of-touch, would typically have only acted as fuel for the fire of juror anger. Closer examination reveals, however, it was in fact the very candor with which Ms. Paltrow answered that allowed the jury to accept her as the more reasonable and believable party in the courtroom.
The four Nuclear Verdicts® defense methods (accept responsibility, personalize the defendant, give a number, and argue pain and suffering) are proven tactics to defuse juror anger.[xv] But one key component to the success of these methods is sincerity.[xvi] A jury can smell a lie from a mile away, and an insincere word from a defendant can very well be the match that lights the fire. What is clear from Ms. Paltrow’s testimony is she did not sidestep, ignore, or sugarcoat who she is. She acknowledged without hesitation everything from the exorbitant cost of her children’s skiing lessons[xvii] to her friendship with Taylor Swift.[xviii] She did not pretend to be something she very clearly is not, and that frankness translated to her successful application (knowing or not) of two key Nuclear Verdicts® defense methods: accept responsibility and personalize the defendant.
If the Methods Work for Gwyneth Paltrow, They Can Work for Every Defendant
It appears even plaintiff’s attorney was charmed by Ms. Paltrow’s frank responses. Their friendly banter during cross-examination may have done more to personalize the defendant than cultivate the anger that would have led to a verdict against her. Also helpful was the fact the jury heard from and about Ms. Paltrow’s children, who were introduced to their mother’s boyfriend during the ski trip.[xix] Her daughter painted a portrait of Ms. Paltrow following the accident as being “in a state of shock,” “really shaken up,” and in “…some sort of pain.”[xx] It is much harder for a jury to punish a defendant who they see as human than one who remains two-dimensional or distanced.
During Ms. Paltrow’s testimony, she also accepted responsibility. She did not shy away from her behavior following the collision. She testified without hesitation that she swore at the plaintiff and left the scene while he was still requiring attention, even going so far as to outright apologize for having used profanity.[xxi] She owned a fact that could have easily been used against her, and explained she was in shock after initially believing the collision was possibly a sexual assault.[xxii]
Juror interviews following the trial confirm Ms. Paltrow’s candor and frankness allowed the jury to unanimously find in her favor.[xxiii] Importantly, one juror was able to draw a distinction between the reliability of Ms. Paltrow compared to the plaintiff, ultimately concluding Ms. Paltrow’s version of events was more objectively believable and reasonable.[xxiv] This illustrates one of the primary benefits of employing the Nuclear Verdicts® defense methods: when jurors perceive you as the most reasonable party in the courtroom, they are invited to consider the credibility, reasonableness, and reliability of the story spun by your opponent.
While it is clear Ms. Paltrow is still not like the rest of us, her success at trial is a hopeful reminder that any defendant facing a potentially nuclear result has the power to change the outcome. Through the sincere and authentic presentation of her own story, she was able to convince a jury and possibly even rehabilitate her image beyond the courtroom. And unlike the hyper-elite products for sale by Goop, the Nuclear Verdicts® defense methods are available for all to use.
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[vii] Robert F. Tyson, Nuclear Verdicts: Defending Justice for All (2020)
[xv] Robert F. Tyson, Nuclear Verdicts: Defending Justice for All (2020)