A jury has ordered Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis to pay at least $7.5 million to a woman who accused him of raping her at his Manhattan apartment after a movie premiere in 2013.
The woman, Haleigh Breest, 36, was working as a film industry publicist in New York when she met Haggis, who is best known as the director, screenwriter, and producer of Best Picture winner Crash, in the early 2010s. She sued him in December 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement, claiming that after working at the premiere of the movie Side Effects, the filmmaker lured her to his home and then forced her to perform oral sex on him before he raped her.
Haggis, 69, denied the claims, saying that the sex was consensual and countersued her for extortion (his suit has since been dismissed). He is not facing criminal charges in connection with the incident.
After hearing three weeks of testimony, including from Breest and Haggis, the six-person jury issued their verdict Thursday afternoon, awarding her $7.5 million in compensatory damages. Jurors are expected to return to court on Monday to determine punitive damages in the case, the Associated Press reported.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Haggis's attorney Priya Chaudhry said they were disappointed and "shocked" by the jury's verdict. Chaudhry said they were not allowed to tell the jury "so many critical things," including that Haggis was the one who went to prosecutors and police when Breest first sued him. She also criticized the judge's decision to allow Breest's lawyers to present the jury with statements of four other women who accused him of sexual misconduct but who never reported their allegations to police.
"No one could have had a fair trial in that courtroom under those circumstances," she said. "This is a shameful exploitation of the #MeToo movement where political sentiment trumps facts."
The New York Times reported that after the verdict was read, Haggis looked over at his daughters and mouthed, "It's OK." The filmmaker and his attorneys did not answer questions about whether they planned to appeal the judgment as they left the courtroom. Breest told reporters she was "very grateful."
Her attorney Zoe Salzman said in a statement to BuzzFeed News Friday that they were pleased with the verdict.
"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," Salzman said. "We commend Ms. Breest for the bravery it took to come forward. She stood up for herself and for all women."
During the trial, Haggis testified that he and Breest had been flirty leading up to the alleged assault, but she chalked up their interactions to her just "being nice," according to the Times. The night of the incident, Haggis had offered her a ride home and then invited her to his apartment for a drink. While at his apartment, Breest testified, the filmmaker forcibly kissed her, took off her tights without her consent, and then compelled her to perform oral sex on him and raped her despite her pleas for him to stop.
The next day, she texted a friend, "I thought I was getting a ride home!" to which her friend responded, "Naive !!!," according to the newspaper.
Haggis testified that while Breest seemed "conflicted," she initiated kisses and the oral sex, according to the AP. He could not recall if they had intercourse.
At trial, attorneys for Haggis, a former Scientologist, asserted that the Church of Scientology was behind the allegations — despite acknowledging that Breest had no connections to the institution. Haggis had renounced the church in a scathing letter years earlier, and the lawsuit, his attorneys said, was its way of getting back at him. The church, which has been heavily scrutinized for its beliefs, secrecy, and allegedly physically and financially abusive practices, has denied his claims.
Breest said she decided to sue Haggis because of his public condemnations of Harvey Weinstein after the producer's history of rape was first publicly reported in October 2017. "This man raped me, and he is presenting himself as a champion of women to the world,” she recalled thinking, according to the AP.
After Breest filed her complaint, three other women came forward with their own allegations of sexual misconduct against Haggis in encounters dating back to 1996.
Thursday's verdict comes several months after Haggis was arrested in Italy on suspicion of sexual assault. At the time, his attorney told BuzzFeed News she couldn't comment on the specifics but that she was confident the allegations would be dismissed.
"He is totally innocent, and willing to fully cooperate with the authorities so the truth comes out quickly," Chaudhry said.
An Italian court went on to dismiss the case, citing contradictions in the woman's story, Italian news agency ANSA reported.