In a celebrity trial, medical experts took center stage.
In one of the highest-profile trials of 2023, actress-turned-lifestyle influencer Gwyneth Paltrow relied heavily on medical expert witnesses to secure a legal victory.
The lawsuit was filed in 2019 by Terry Sanderson, a retired optometrist who claimed he had been injured in a ski accident caused by Paltrow in 2016. (Sanderson also sued the ski resort and a ski instructor, but those claims were dismissed, leaving Paltrow as the sole defendant.) Sanderson claimed that Paltrow had hit him from behind on the slopes and demanded $300,000 in damages for a traumatic brain injury as well as four broken ribs.
While many such celebrity lawsuits would settle quickly, Paltrow chose to fight back, filing a counterclaim alleging that Sanderson had caused the accident. The case went to trial in March of this year, with the jury ultimately siding with Paltrow, awarding a symbolic $1 in damages. The amount was small, but for Paltrow, the real reward was vindication.
Paltrow's celebrity status drew a significant amount of attention to the lawsuit and the trial. However, during the trial itself, medical expert witnesses took center stage.
The role of medical experts in Paltrow's defense
Sanderson's doctors claimed he had numerous neurological symptoms as a result of his injuries sustained in the ski accident, including mood swings, memory loss, and communication problems. His legal team sought to attribute those symptoms to post-concussion syndrome (PCS). In response, Paltrow's attorneys brought in four medical experts to present alternative theories of causation, including a radiologist, a neurologist, a neuropsychologist, and a forensic psychologist, as the Associated Press reported.
At trial, radiologist Carl Black pointed to Sanderson's brain scan and testified that there were signs of microvascular ischemic disease of white matter. "Aging can result in this," Dr. Black said, "because we’re all deteriorating to some degree or other every day we live."
Another defense expert, neuropsychologist Angela Eastvold, testified that she believed Sanderson's symptoms were pre-existing and misattributed to the concussion, both by Sanderson himself and by his friends and family. "[Dr. Eastvold] explained that people tend to grab onto the concussion as 'the cause of everything' and 'misremember' functioning prior to the injury," according to Fox News.
A third medical expert, neurologist Robert Hoesch, testified that Sanderson's symptoms were caused by pre-existing depression and anxiety, exacerbated by the stress and national profile of participating in the lawsuit against Paltrow itself. "The cure for this is the end of this lawsuit," Dr. Hoesch told Paltrow's lawyer.
Just as importantly, the defense experts held the line on cross-examination as the plaintiff's attorneys attempted to refute or undermine their testimony. While the plaintiff's lawyers scored some victories, such as getting Dr. Hoesch to admit that he had never directly examined Sanderson, their efforts evidently did not sway the jury.
This high-profile example shows how the right medical experts can make or break a case
Paltrow's medical experts, along with a ski collision researcher who opined on the circumstances of the collision itself, made up the core of her case. Because of time constraints during the eight-day trial, both sides had to make difficult strategic decisions regarding which witnesses to call and which evidence to present. Paltrow's legal team chose to spend most of their time on expert testimony, and that strategy paid off.
While most trials are clearly not as high-profile as the Paltrow case, it is still a terrific example of the difference the right medical expert can make in a legal matter. Paltrow's medical experts were not only highly qualified physicians, but also well-prepared to offer compelling trial testimony and navigate scathing cross-examination.
The right medical expert matters. For over 38 years, we've been providing the best in medicine to assist the legal community. If you need a medical expert for a legal matter, contact Rieback Medical-Legal Consultants today to find out how we can help.