Screenwriter Paul Haggis ordered to pay €9.2M total after losing rape lawsuit

Film director Paul Haggis leaves court after losing sexual assault civil lawsuit
Film director Paul Haggis leaves court after losing sexual assault civil lawsuit   -   Copyright  John Minchillo/Copyright 2022 The AP
By euronews  with AP

The US Academy Award-winning screenwriter and director Paul Haggis has been ordered by a civil court to pay an additional $2.5 million (€2.4 million) in damages in a rape lawsuit, bringing the total to $10 million (€9.6 million) for a woman who said he sexually assaulted her nearly a decade ago.

While accuser Haleigh Breest's lawyers called the verdict just, Haggis insisted that he had been falsely accused and was financially ruined by fighting the civil case. He vowed to appeal.

“I can't live with lies like this. I will die clearing my name,” he said as he left court.

It concludes one of several #MeToo-era cases that have put Hollywood notables’ behaviour on trial this year. 

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.

Crimes, claims and convictions

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.

AP Photo
Screenwriter and film director Paul Haggis leaves court after being found guilty in a sexual assault civil lawsuit, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, in New York.AP Photo

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.

Haggis denied all of the allegations. His defence, meanwhile, 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 dueling perspectives about what one called widespread misconceptions about rape victims’ behaviour, such as assumptions that victims would have no subsequent contact with their attackers.

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 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’ accusers or Breest’s lawyers had Scientology ties, and his lawyers acknowledged that Breest herself does not. Still, Haggis 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, for 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.”

Additional sources • AP