Jury orders Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis to pay at least $7.5M to accuser in rape suit

A jury in a New York civil trial has ordered Oscar-winning Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis to pay at least $7.5 million US to a publicist who accused him of rape.

Jurors also plan to award additional punitive damages in New York civil trial

Canadian-born filmmaker Paul Haggis, centre, speaks to a reporter after leaving a New York civil court on Thursday. He was ordered by a jury in the civil trial to pay $7.5 million US to a publicist who says she was raped by him in 2013. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

A jury in a New York civil trial ordered Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis Thursday to pay at least $7.5 million US to a woman who accused him of rape, one of several #MeToo-era cases that have put some Hollywood notables' behaviour on trial this fall.

Jurors also plan to award additional punitive damages.

The civil court trial pitted Haggis, known for writing best picture Oscar winners Million Dollar Baby and Crash, against Haleigh Breest, a publicist who met him while working at movie premieres in the early 2010s.

After a screening afterparty in January 2013, Haggis offered Breest a lift home and invited her to his New York apartment for a drink.

Breest, 36, said Haggis then subjected her to unwanted advances and ultimately compelled her to perform oral sex and raped her despite her entreaties to stop. Haggis, 69, said the publicist was flirtatious and, while sometimes seeming "conflicted," initiated kisses and oral sex in an entirely consensual interaction. He said he couldn't recall whether they had intercourse.

After a day of deliberating, jurors sided with Breest, who said she suffered psychological and professional consequences from her encounter with Haggis. She sued in late 2017.

While awarding her $7.5 million US to compensate for suffering, the jury concluded that punitive damages should also be awarded. Jurors return Monday for more court proceedings to help them decide that amount.

After hugging her lawyers, Breest said she was "very grateful" for the verdict as she left court. In a statement released later, she said she was thankful "that the jury chose to follow the facts — and believed me."

Haggis said he was "very disappointed in the results."

"I'm going to continue to, with my team, fight to clear my name," he said as he left the courthouse with his three adult daughters. One had wept on a sister's shoulder as the verdict was delivered.

Other #MeToo cases

The verdict came weeks after another civil jury, in the federal courthouse next door, decided that Kevin Spacey didn't sexually abuse fellow actor and then-teenager Anthony Rapp in 1986.

Meanwhile, That '70s Show actor Danny Masterson and former movie magnate Harvey Weinstein are on trial, separately, on criminal rape charges in Los Angeles. Both deny the allegations, and Weinstein is appealing a conviction in New York.

All four cases followed the #MeToo upwelling of denunciations, disclosures and demands for accountability about sexual misconduct, triggered by October 2017 news reports on decades of allegations about Weinstein.

Breest, in particular, said she decided to sue Haggis because his public condemnations of Weinstein infuriated her.

Publicist Haleigh Breest, left, arrives to court in New York on Nov. 2, 2022. (Julia Nikhinson/The Associated Press)

Four other women also testified that they experienced forceful, unwelcome passes — and in one case, rape — by Haggis in separate encounters going back to 1996. None of the four took legal action.

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

Haggis denied all of the allegations. His defence introduced jurors to several women — including ex-wife and former longtime Dallas cast member Deborah Rennard — who said the screenwriter-director took it in stride when they rebuffed his romantic or sexual overtures.

During three weeks of testimony, the trial scrutinized text messages that 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 early court papers.

The two sides debated whether Haggis was physically capable of carrying out the alleged attack eight weeks after a spinal surgery. Psychology experts offered duelling perspectives about what one called widespread misconceptions about rape victims' behaviour, such as assumptions that victims would have no subsequent contact with their attackers.

Scientology a focus

Jurors also 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 an adherent for decades before publicly renouncing — and denouncing — Scientology in 2009.

Through testimony from Haggis and other ex-members, his defence argued that the church set out to discredit him and might have had something to do with the lawsuit.

No witnesses said they knew that Haggis's accusers or Breest's lawyers had Scientology ties, and his lawyers acknowledged that Breest herself does not. Still, Haggis's lawyer, Priya Chaudhry, sought to persuade jurors that there were "the footprints, though maybe not the fingerprints, of Scientology's involvement here."

The church said in a statement that it has no involvement in the matter, arguing that Haggis is trying to shame his accusers with an "absurd and patently false" claim.

Breest's lawyers, Ilann Maazal and Zoe Salzman, have called it "a shameful and unsupported conspiracy theory."

The Canadian-born Haggis penned episodes of such well-known series as Diff'rent Strokes and Thirtysomething in the 1980s. 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, in 2004 and 2005 respectively, and Haggis also won a screenwriting Oscar for Crash.

His other credits include the screenplays for the James Bond movies Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.