There has been plenty of press attention to the recent ski accident case against the Goop entrepreneur and Oscar winning actress, much of it focusing on fashion, her parting words to her defeated opponent, whether Ms. Paltrow was “relatable” on the stand, and if the case augurs the death of the trope that celebrities are “just like us.” But the important legal lesson from the case is the value of and need for an aggressive defense. Some observers have asked why Paltrow went to trial over a claim for $300,000. With a net worth approximated to be north of $200 million, what exactly is 300 grand to Ms. Paltrow?
That’s precisely the wrong question.
The case began with a demand for over three million dollars, and discovery elicited evidence the plaintiff, Terry Sanderson, apparently believed he was coming up on a big payday as a result of being in a skiing accident with a wealthy and famous celebrity. It would not be surprising if he assumed Ms. Paltrow would seek to “buy peace” by settling the case quietly.
An Aggressive Claim, and a Choice
The plaintiff’s initial suit seeking a mid-seven figure damages amount against Paltrow was dismissed. He refiled, seeking $300,000, and claiming the collision on the bunny slopes had caused a traumatic brain injury, four broken ribs, and substantially impaired his enjoyment of life, include wine tasting. Given that his demand had dropped by an order of magnitude, it would not have been surprising if Paltrow had taken the opportunity to settle the case and put the matter behind her. After all, getting sued and having to defend yourself is hardly anyone’s idea of a good time.
But Paltrow decided to fight back. She counter-sued, seeking just a dollar in damages, alleging Sanderson had collided with her (not the other way around) and that he was exaggerating his injuries in hopes of obtaining a large award from her.
Paltrow’s post-verdict statement explained, “I felt that acquiescing to a false claim compromised my integrity.” Paltrow almost certainly recognized that settling a seemingly meritless lawsuit and paying the plaintiff could create the perverse incentive for other would-be plaintiffs to treat the defendant like a guaranteed payout. Vigorously defending against a case you believe to be frivolous sends a clear signal that you aren’t going to be taken advantage of and deters future opportunists.
Mount a Real Defense by Going on Offense
But a vigorous defense isn’t the same thing as bluster and obstruction. It requires methodically dismantling the other side’s claims and advancing your own narrative. It’s not enough to just deny, deny, deny. You have to make sure the judge (and if a trial is necessary, the jury) understands precisely why the other side’s claims don’t add up. If you are a defendant, you need a theory of the case, one your audience (the judge, the jury, and the public) will understand. A theory of the case allows you to build the themes that tie the evidence together to tell a compelling story in which you are the protagonist, not a villain. There is a reason why saying, “she seemed defensive,” isn’t a compliment. Instead of crouching defensively against the other side’s attacks, you put forward the truth as you experienced it and trust the jury to decide what really happened.
Have an Experienced, Zealous Advocate in Your Corner
Lawyers without a proven track record winning cases may be quick to tell a client to promptly settle a case and “buy peace,” even when that advice creates the risk of future copycat litigation, and means resolution on unfavorable terms. A robust defense, built around your theory of the case, however, can not only deter future lawsuits, it can also send a strong signal to the other side that this is not a battle worth fighting. Indeed, the fact that you are not afraid of trial is often what leads to a highly favorable resolution before trial. Despite Ms. Paltrow seeing her case all the way through to the end, the vast majority of lawsuits still settle before trial. But that doesn’t mean all cases resolve the same way. You need a truly zealous advocate, not just to “buy peace” in the current matter, but to deter future meritless claims.
We handle every case as though it will be tried. Every element of our preparation is part of a larger strategic plan to get the best possible outcome for our client. When your case has real repercussions for your reputation, your livelihood, or your peace of mind, you need lawyers who are both aggressive and smart in your corner, lawyers who are consistently guided by your best interests and your understanding of what a successful outcome looks like.