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When Wealthy People Collide on the Slopes

Photo: Jeff Swinger-Pool/Getty Images

The trial between Gwyneth Paltrow and retired optometrist Terry Sanderson over a 2016 ski collision began earlier this week with a Utah jury of their peers (all Goop founders or retired optometrists) left to decide who is to blame. Both are claiming to be the victims in the crash at Deer Valley, a resort where celebrities and the rich go to pizza down the slopes and, it seems, occasionally collide into one another.

Sanderson sued Paltrow in 2019 for allegedly “knocking him down hard, knocking him out, and causing a brain injury, and four broken ribs and other serious injuries.” He claims these injuries left him unable to enjoy the things he used to, like wine tastings. Paltrow then countersued, saying Sanderson had actually skied into her and made her quit skiing for the day “even though it was still morning.”

Skiing, like cycling or driving, comes with its own rules of the road. The skier below has the right of way, and much of the trial will hang on who can convincingly claim they were further downhill. In order to learn more about ski code, I reached out to Matt Elston, who has spent a decade working as a ski instructor at the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado. We talked about slope etiquette, the trial, and dealing with wealthy clientele. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What are the general rules of the road when you’re on the mountain?

There’s a skier’s code that basically has a list of items, like the person ahead of you has the right of way, only stop in places where you’re visible from above, and what I call “look up before you change up,” or look uphill before you suddenly make a turn. I think one of the big problems on the mountain is people don’t actually know the code.

Have you dealt with that?

Once, at Beaver Creek, I had a client who was coming across the hill toward me. He should have right of way, but he is crossing a high-traffic area, sees a guy above coming straight down, and quickly turns to avoid a collision. I said to my client, “Good job avoiding that,” and the other guy stopped ten or 15 yards below and made some kind of comment about knowing the code and how he had the right of way. I’m thinking, Well, no, the skiers code says my client who was downhill had the right of way. I could have tried explaining it to him, but he already seemed a little agitated, and it didn’t seem worth it.

More experienced skiers know the code, but you’ll find threads on sites complaining about people who don’t understand who has the right of way.  

Are these kinds of collisions common? 

Take somewhere like Vail — there are 20,000 people on a busy day, so there’s going to be a collision on the mountain every day, but 95 percent of them are just on and off the chairlift. Usually no one gets hurt and everyone goes on their way. But occasionally there are really bad consequences, and it’s common enough that if you drive to Denver, you see billboards of several lawyers who are like, “If you’ve been in a ski collision, call me.”

What do you think about the Paltrow and Sanderson case?

It seems to be a “he said, she said” type of thing. It sounds to me like you might have witnesses with conflicting stories, too, and I think it’s even possible that both parties think they’re telling the truth. Take, for example, the way you make turns in kind of an S pattern, so if you have one person making a right turn, another person making a left turn and skiing parallel with each other, neither one was ahead of other person, and now all of a sudden they might meet at apex of their turn. Who is at fault in that situation, it’s hard to know. The reality is almost always — and there are exceptions — that collisions usually happen because you don’t see the person. And if it’s a legit collision, you’re probably shook up.

So how do you know who’s at fault? 

Sometimes it’s easier for a witness to tell, but witnesses make mistakes all the time — with quick incidents, too. One thing that didn’t make a lot of sense to me is one witness testimony I read said that Gwyneth hit him from behind and his ski tips flew up in the air and then he wound up spread eagle on his face. If your ski tips are flying up in the air, you’re usually falling backward. I’m not saying it’s not impossible, but it didn’t make a lot of sense.

Good point. So what are your clients like?

When I started at Vail, they told us the average family income was north of $250,000, and that was in 2012. It’s definitely a wealthy sport.

Do they have an attitude? 

Most of the time, people are on vacation and tend to be more relaxed and friendly, but I do think if you have a near collision and feathers get ruffled, there you see some of the entitled attitude a little bit — but it’s a minority of people. During COVID, masks had to be worn, and some people would give pushback to resort employees who were asking them to wear a mask.

If there’s any attitude generally, it’s of wanting to blame the snowboarder, to be honest. I think skiers want to feel the snowboarders are the problem.

When Wealthy People Collide on the Slopes