Filmmaker Paul Haggis ordered to pay 7.5 million dollars in rape case

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A jury ordered Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis on Thursday to pay at least 7.5 million dollars (£6.4 million) to a woman who accused him of rape in one of several MeToo-era cases that have put Hollywood names on trial this autumn.

The jury also decided that additional punitive damages should be awarded, but the amount is to be decided later.

Veering from sex to red-carpet socialising to Scientology, the civil court trial in New York 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, he offered her a lift home and invited her to his New York apartment for a drink.

Sexual Misconduct Paul Haggis
Publicist Haleigh Breest arrives at court (Julia Nikhinson/AP)

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 could not recall whether they had intercourse.

Jurors sided with Breest, who said she suffered psychological and professional consequences from her encounter with Haggis. She sued in late 2017.

“I thought I was getting a ride home. I agreed to have a drink.

“What happened never should have happened. And it had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with him and his actions,” she told jurors.

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

Anthony Rapp brought the civil action against Mr Spacey in New York over claims he was the victim of an “unwanted sexual advance” by the actor at a party in 1986 when he was 14.

Mr Spacey “categorically denied” the allegation.

In a US civil case any allegations only need to be proven “on the balance of probability”, rather than to the criminal standard of “beyond all reasonable doubt”.

Sexual Misconduct Paul Haggis
Paul Haggis leaves court on Thursday (John Minchillo/AP)

Both deny the allegations, and Weinstein is appealing against a conviction in New York.

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

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

“This man raped me, and he is presenting himself as a champion of women to the world,” she recalled thinking.

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

“The behaviour showed me that he was somebody who was never going to stop,” one woman testified, saying that Mr Haggis repeatedly tried to kiss her against her will and even followed her into and out of a taxi to her apartment in Toronto in 2015.

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

“I’m scared because I don’t know why women, why anyone, would lie about things like this,” he said.

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 his stride when they rebuffed his romantic or sexual overtures.

Sexual Misconduct Paul Haggis
The jury also decided that additional punitive damages should be awarded (John Minchillo/AP)

Jurors heard extensive testimony about the Church of Scientology, the religion founded by science fiction and fantasy author L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. Mr Haggis was an adherent for decades before publicly renouncing, and denouncing, Scientology in 2009.

Through testimony from Mr 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 Ms Breest’s lawyers had Scientology ties, and his lawyers acknowledged that Ms Breest herself does not.

Still, Mr 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 Mr Haggis is trying to shame his accusers with an “absurd and patently false” claim.

Ms Breest’s lawyers have called it “a shameful and unsupported conspiracy theory.”

Canadian-born Haggis got his start as a TV writer, eventually penning episodes of such well-known 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 a screenwriting Oscar for Crash.

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

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