Paul Haggis found liable in rape case; hit with $7.5-million judgment and more to come
Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis must pay at least $7.5 million to the woman who accused him of raping her during a 2013 encounter at his New York City apartment.
The judgment came Thursday after the jury in Haggis’ civil trial found the “Million Dollar Baby” screenwriter liable for the sexual assault on Haleigh Breest, a former publicist who worked the red carpets at movie premieres in the early 2010s. According to the Associated Press, the jury intends to level additional punitive damages in the case.
The verdict in the case — which Breest, 36, first brought against Haggis, 69, in 2017 — took six hours, the New York Times reported.
The “Crash” writer-director was silent in the face of reporters’ questions as he walked out of the courtroom, while Breest said only that she was “very grateful.” She added in a later statement to NYT, “I am grateful that I had the opportunity to seek justice and accountability in court — and that the jury chose to follow the facts — and believed me.”
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Priya Chaudhry, Haggis’ attorney, said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that a fair trial for Haggis was “impossible” once the judge admitted the statements of four additional women — three of whom didn’t appear in court — who didn’t go to the police with their complaints.
“They used this to distort the truth, assassinate Mr. Haggis’ character, paint him as a monster, and use a ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ strategy,” Chaudhry continued, calling the trial “a shameful exploitation of the #MeToo movement where political sentiment trumps facts.”
Breest filed the lawsuit in December 2017 alleging Haggis raped her at his SoHo apartment in New York on Jan. 31, 2013. The two met up at a premiere party for the Steven Soderbergh film “Side Effects,” where she was working as a freelance publicist.
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She said she accepted his offer of a ride home and then his offer of a drink at his place, even though she had suggested getting a drink at a bar instead, because she didn’t want to offend her employer’s high-profile red-carpet guest. At his loft, she alleged, the filmmaker forced her to perform oral sex on him, “aggressively inserted” his finger into her vagina and then raped her.
Haggis had filed his own civil suit hours before Breest’s complaint was submitted, alleging that she and her attorney attempted to extort $9 million in “hush money” regarding what the director said was a false rape claim.
In January 2018, Breest’s lawsuit was updated to include statements from three other women who came forward anonymously to allege sexual misconduct by Haggis, including one woman who alleged that he raped her.
An appeals court judge threw out Haggis’ case in July 2018, saying it had no specific allegation that Breest threatened to go public with her claim if she weren’t paid. The director abandoned his appeal of the decision in March 2019.
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During three days on the stand last week, Haggis alleged Breest had flirted with him at the event and willingly went to his place, where he made a pass within minutes. He said she “seemed conflicted in some way” when the two initially were kissing, but he thought she was being “playful” when she told him up front that she wasn’t going to spend the night in SoHo. Haggis said he had no memory of whether they had intercourse, but that he found the oral sex pleasurable.
Before Haggis’ testimony, Breest told the jury that upon arriving at Haggis’ apartment the filmmaker had abruptly tried to kiss her, backed her into his refrigerator and asked her, “Are you scared of me?”
She then recounted what she said was a terrifying, painful attack that left her shocked and “really struggling to comprehend what had happened,” noting that she “couldn’t understand how somebody who seemed like a nice guy would do that.”
Breest testified that she managed to dodge him but said that when they reached a guest bedroom, Haggis “became aggressive very quickly,” pushed her onto the bed and pulled off her tights and clothes. She tried to keep them on and told him to stop, she said.
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Then, she said, he forced her to perform oral sex and wanted intercourse. She said she asked to take a shower as a subtle way to get out of the room, but he followed her there, then steered her back to the guest bedroom and made a further series of unwanted sexual moves that culminated in rape.
“I was like a trapped animal. There was nothing for me to do,” she said.
Breest said she passed out soon afterward, awoke alone on the bed the next morning and left without seeing Haggis again.
Haggis testified that he awakened during the night and went to sleep in his own bed. When he awoke, he said he was disappointed to see that she was gone and hadn’t left him her phone number.
The jurors will return to court Monday to decide punitive damages. Haggis told the court in 2021 that he was nearly bankrupt, having racked up nearly $2 million in legal fees at that point.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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