By Arnie Herschorn (Partner) – Litigation and Hivda Ates (Student-at-Law)
What might have happened if the Paltrow trial had taken place in Ontario?
The Paltrow Trial: A High-Profile Case
In March 2023, a Utah civil trial jury found Academy Award-winning actress, businesswoman, and wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow not liable in a 2016 ski collision case that occurred at a luxury resort. Paltrow was sued by retired eye doctor Terry Sanderson, who claimed that Paltrow negligently crashed into him from behind while skiing at Deer Valley Resort in Utah, causing him severe injuries. Despite Sanderson’s original claim for damages of $3.1 million, Sanderson was ultimately found liable to Paltrow (by a jury) for the symbolic sum of one dollar, plus costs.
Unsurprisingly, the Paltrow trial garnered attention beyond typical courtroom dramas, thanks, in part, to the actress's strategic use of fashion. The New York Times' Vanessa Friedman describes her courtroom wardrobe, a "symphony of earth tones, conservative yet luxurious and relaxed," as a persuasive tool. Paltrow’s attire skillfully softened her image, appearing less entitled and more in touch, while still dressed appropriately for court.
The GOOP founder cleverly integrated her celebrity status into her strategy, thus countering her opponent’s tactic of painting her as an elitist celebrity. Paltrow’s deposition became a major viral moment as Sanderson’s lawyer inquired about her friendship with Taylor Swift, her height, and the cost of the private ski instructors for her children.
The Canadian Twist: What if the trial had been held in Ontario?
While Ontario and U.S. civil justice systems share many similarities, some significant differences could have affected the Paltrow trial had it taken place in Ontario:
1. Documentary Discovery: Different Standards
- In Ontario, a document must be disclosed if it is relevant to a matter at issue in the pleadings. Parties must search for and disclose all relevant documents, including electronic ones, that are in their possession or under their control.
- Unlike in the U.S., parties in Ontario do not exchange written requests for production for all relevant documents, and they independently determine relevance.
- Relevant documents are disclosed in an “affidavit of documents,” wherein the deponent swears that a diligent search was conducted and that all relevant documents are disclosed.
- In the Paltrow trial, this distinction in Ontario could have potentially limited the scope of document discovery, focusing more on documents directly relevant to the case and requiring a diligent search for all pertinent materials.
2. Examinations for Discovery/Depositions: Scope
- In Ontario, examinations for discovery (known as depositions in the U.S.) have a limited scope, allowing only questions directly relevant to matters that have been pleaded.
- In examinations in Ontario, the deponent may refuse a question on the basis of relevance or privilege, undertake to provide an answer later, or take questions “under advisement” to consider answering at a later date.
- Additionally, a party may bring a “refusals” motion to compel an answer that a party refused or choose to rely on the refusal itself.
- In the Paltrow trial, this distinction could have played a role, as questions about her friendship with Taylor Swift might not have been allowed in an Ontario court.
3. Civil Jury Trials: A Rarity in Ontario
- The Utah jury found Paltrow not at fault and assigned 100% liability to Sanderson.
- In Ontario, civil jury trials are rare, as they are not a constitutional right. They are more commonly used in prosecutions when the accused faces a criminal charge.
- Parties to a civil action in Ontario may request a jury, but even when the claims at issue are permitted to be tried before a jury, Ontario courts have broad discretion to strike the jury and proceed with a judge-only trial.
- Additionally, Ontario civil juries generally award lesser damages than their American counterparts.
- In the Paltrow trial, the impact of her carefully selected attire could have been diminished in the absence of a jury in an Ontario court.
4. Cultural Differences: Courtroom Formalities
- Ontario courtrooms are more formal than their U.S. counterparts. Counsel refer to opposing counsel as "my friend," and informal communication between counsel and the judge is not tolerated. In superior and federal courts, lawyers wear black robes or gowns, and pleadings are drafted in a more neutral and reserved style.
- In Ontario, subject to certain conditions, the winner in litigation is awarded costs, which include lawyer’s fees, against the losing side. In general, the award will cover about one-third of the costs that the winning side incurs.
- Refusing to accept a reasonable pre-trial settlement offer, when followed by failure at trial, will typically increase the size of awarded costs in Ontario, which is not a common practice in U.S. federal courts.
Paltrow’s high-profile ski collision trial serves as an interesting case study, highlighting some of the differences between the Ontario and American civil justice systems. From documentary discovery standards to the rarity of civil jury trials in Ontario, these distinctions could very well have shaped the conduct of the Paltrow action had the trial taken place in Ontario.
If you have questions regarding this article, business litigation, arbitration, or mediation, please contact Arnie Herschorn, Litigation Lawyer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is intended to provide general information only and not legal advice. This information should not be acted upon without prior consultation with legal advisors.