Filmmaker Paul Haggis ordered to pay $7.5 million to rape accuser in NY trial – National

A jury ordered Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis on Thursday to pay at least $7.5 million to a woman who accused him of rape in one of several #MeToo-era cases that have put Hollywood celebrities on trial this fall. The jury also plans to award additional punitive damages.

The civil trial went from red-carpet sex to Scientology, and Haggis, known for writing best picture Oscar winners “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash,” sued Haleigh Breest, a journalist who met him when he worked on film premieres in early 2010. After a screening party in January 2013, he invited her home and invited her to his apartment in New York for a drink.

After hugging her lawyers, Breest said she was “very grateful” for the verdict as she left court. Haggis declined to comment.

He sold stock as the verdict was read, then turned to his three grown daughters in the courtroom audience. One had cried on a sister’s shoulder.

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Breest, 36, said Haggis then made unwanted advances and eventually forced her to perform oral sex and raped her despite her pleas to stop. Haggis, 69, said the journalist was flirtatious and although he appeared to be “incoherent” at times, he initiated kisses and oral sex in a completely consensual manner. He said he did not remember if they had had intercourse.

Jurors sided with Breest, who said she suffered psychological and professional consequences from her encounters with Haggis. She filed a lawsuit in late 2017.

“I thought I was getting a ride home.” I agreed to have a drink. What happened should never have happened. And it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him and his actions,” she told jurors last month.

While the jury awarded her $7.5 million in compensatory damages, it concluded that punitive damages should also be awarded. Justices return Monday for further court hearings to help them decide that amount.

The verdict came weeks after another civil jury, in the federal courthouse next door, ruled that Kevin Spacey did not sexually assault co-star and then-teenager Anthony Rapp in 1986. Meanwhile, “That ’70s Show” actor Danny Masterson and former film executive Harvey Weinstein faces trial, separately, on rape charges in Los Angeles. Both deny the allegations, and Weinstein is appealing the conviction in New York.

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All four cases followed the #MeToo upsurge of accusations, disclosures and demands for accountability for sexual assault, which was triggered by news reports in October 2017 about decades of allegations against Weinstein.

Breest, in particular, said she decided to sue Haggis because his public condemnations of Weinstein angered her: “This man raped me and he’s promoting himself as the champion of women in the world,” she recalled.

Four other women also testified that they were subjected to forceful, unwelcome advances – and in one case rape – by Haggis in separate encounters dating back to 1996. None of the four went on trial.

“The behavior showed me that he was someone who was never going to stop,” one woman testified, saying Haggis repeatedly tried to kiss her against her will and even followed her in and out of a taxi to her Toronto apartment in 2015. His lawyers try to attack the credibility of the accusers.

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The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward, as Breest has.

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Haggis denied all the allegations. He told jurors the allegations left him shaken.

“I’m scared because I don’t know why women, why anyone, would lie about things like this,” he said. His defense, meanwhile, introduced jurors to several women — including ex-wife and former “Dallas” actor Deborah Rennard — who said the writer-director took it in stride when they rejected his romantic or sexual advances.

During three weeks of testimony, the trial reviewed text messages Breest sent to friends about what happened with Haggis, emails between them before and after the night in question and some differences between their testimony and what they said in initial court documents.

Both sides disputed whether Haggis was physically capable of carrying out the alleged attack eight weeks after spinal surgery. Psychologists offered a dueling perspective on what one called widespread misconceptions about the behavior of rape victims, such as assumptions that victims would have no contact with their attackers afterwards.

And jurors heard extensive testimony about the Church of Scientology, the religion founded by science fiction and fantasy author L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. Haggis was a follower for decades before publicly recanting and denouncing Scientology in 2009.

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Through testimony from Haggis and other former members, his defense attorney argued that the church intended to discredit him and may have had something to do with the lawsuit.

No witnesses said they knew Haggis’ accusers or Breest’s lawyers had ties to Scientology, and his lawyers admitted Breest herself had not. Haggis attorney Priya Chaudhry still tried to convince jurors that there were “the footprints, though perhaps not the fingerprints, of Scientology’s involvement here.”

The church said in a statement that it had no involvement in the case and claimed that Haggis was trying to embarrass his accusers with a “ridiculous and patently false” claim. Breest’s lawyers have called it an “outrageous and unsupported conspiracy theory.”

Canadian-born Haggis started out as a television writer, eventually writing episodes of such iconic 1980s series as “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Thirtysomething.” He broke into movies with a splash with “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash,” which he also directed and co-produced. Each film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, for 2004 and 2005, respectively, and Haggis also won an Academy Award for screenplay for “Crash.”

His other credits include the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Letters From Iwo Jima” and screenplays for the James Bond films “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.”

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