Paul Haggis is liable to pay damages for forcing sex on Haleigh Breest in 2013, a civil jury decided Thursday, rejecting the “Crash” filmmaker’s three-pronged defense that he and the former publicist had consensual sex, that she was seeking revenge and a payday, and that somehow Scientology was behind it all.
A jury of four women and two men ordered Haggis to pay Breest $7.5 million and recommended punitive damages, which will be determined in a second phase starting Monday. Haggis has said the lawsuit, which sat on the runway for nearly six years, has already ruined him financially.
The New York jury began deliberating Thursday at 9:45 a.m. after 15 days of testimony that concluded Wednesday, and rendered their verdict just after 4:30 p.m. The panel found him liable on all three counts of rape and sexual abuse; because it was a civil trial, Haggis faces no jail or prison time.
“We’re pleased to see justice served for our client, Haleigh Breest,” her lawyers Ilan Maazel and Zoe Salzman said in a statement to TheWrap. “After the jury heard a mountain of undeniable evidence against Mr. Haggis, they did the right thing and held him accountable for his deplorable behavior. We commend Ms. Breest for the bravery it took to come forward. She stood up for herself and for all women.”
Closing arguments on Wednesday painted widely divergent versions of what happened between the “Crash” director and the former events publicist in February 2013, when the then-26-year-old accepted a ride from Haggis, then 59, after a movie premiere afterparty where she was working and he was a VIP guest.
Breest testified over four days, saying Haggis pressured her to come up to his apartment for a drink, where he immediately began kissing her and making aggressive passes. She said that against her repeated protests, the encounter concluded when he ripped off her tights on a guest room bed, forced her to perform oral sex and vaginally raped her.
“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,” Breest said after the verdict. “The greatest source of comfort through this five-year legal journey has been the support I felt from the women who bravely shared their own stories and let me know I wasn’t alone.”
Haggis has maintained that the encounter was consensual since the day Breest filed her lawsuit four years later in 2017. He testified that the two hooked up after months of flirtatious emails, that Breest seemed to be “having a good time” in his company that night, and that she was smiling, giggling and only resisting him in a “playful” manner before they had sex.
Haggis defense attorney Priya Chaudhry threw out a new theory during her Wednesday closing argument, saying Breest was a “spurned lover” who was angling to see Haggis again after their somewhat awkward but innocuous one-night stand – then turned it to a tale of rape after he had decided she was too “emotionally immature” and moved on. She noted their subsequent friendly exchanges – and her absence anytime he showed up on a red carpet with a girlfriend.
Haggis’ lawyer also argued that the ex-Scientologist’s status as an “enemy” of the church was somehow behind Breest’s allegations – and supporting testimony and depositions of three other women who said they were also assaulted or aggressively pursued by the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Haggis denied any wrongdoing in each case, and called two women as character witnesses who testified that he had made romantic passes at them that they turned away without incident.
Both sides had agreed at one point that Breest had no connection to Scientology. But Haggis’ team called several witnesses anyway, including “Scientology and the Aftermath” co-hosts Leah Remini and Mike Rinder, who all accused the church of covert operations to destroy enemies that are designed to evade detection.
Breest’s lawyer dismissed the “Scientology defense” as a conspiracy theory, and the church repeatedly denied any involvement in the former freelance publicist’s case.
Haggis’ case was just one of four prominent post-#MeToo cases working its way through the courts this fall. By mere coincidence, trials for Kevin Spacey, Danny Masterson and Harvey Weinstein all began around the same time, capping a significant portion of cases leftover from the movement catalyzed by a bombshell October 2017 report in the New York Times.
Spacey was found not liable last month for civil damages against Anthony Rapp; the criminal case against Masterson, a current Scientologist, is still getting through prosecution witnesses in Los Angeles; and the Weinstein criminal case, also in L.A., has been cranking through witnesses – with eight women set to testify in all – toward a November or December conclusion.