Suit over rape claim against filmmaker Haggis heads to trial

Oct 17, 2022, 8:16 PM
Screenwriter Paul Haggis attends 55th New York Film Festival screening of "Spielberg" at Alice Tull...
Screenwriter Paul Haggis attends 55th New York Film Festival screening of "Spielberg" at Alice Tully Hall on October 5, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (AP) — Opening statements are expected Wednesday in a civil case brought by a publicist who accused Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis of raping her almost a decade ago.

Jury selection began Monday in a Manhattan courtroom.

The lawsuit was filed in 2017 as a wave of sexual misconduct accusations against prominent men was propelling the #MeToo movement to new visibility. At least four other women subsequently alleged that Haggis, a screenwriter known for “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby,” sexually assaulted them or tried to do so.

The New York lawsuit centers on publicist Haleigh Breest’s allegation that Haggis offered her a ride home from a movie premiere, invited her to his Manhattan apartment for a drink, rebuffed her suggestion that they go to a public bar instead, and then raped her at the apartment.

The filmmaker, who declined to comment as he left court Monday, maintains that the encounter was consensual.

His defense may also feature an allegation of sinister intrigue: His lawyers have suggested that the Church of Scientology engineered false accusations of sexual misdeeds to ruin Haggis, a former longtime member who became an outspoken critic.

The church has said it had no involvement in the allegations against Haggis, and his accuser’s lawyers have called it “a shameful and unsupported conspiracy theory unworthy of any trial proceeding.”

But Judge Sabrina Kraus ruled last month that Haggis’ lawyers can bring up Scientology, saying that “the jury is entitled to be informed of any possible motive (the) plaintiff may have and about the church’s efforts to discredit Haggis.”

No criminal charges were filed in connection with Breest’s accusation. Her lawsuit could mean a financial penalty, but not prison or probation for Haggis if she prevails. She is seeking unspecified damages.

After the suit was filed in late 2017, three other women told her attorneys and The Associated Press that Haggis had sexually assaulted them or attempted to do so. One said he had raped her. In response, his lawyer said Haggis “didn’t rape anybody.”

Kraus ruled last month that those three women can also testify as part of Breest’s effort to demonstrate Haggis’ “intent and lack of consent.”

Jurors won’t be allowed to hear that Haggis was detained for about two weeks at an Italian hotel in June while authorities investigated allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman there. Haggis was in Italy for an arts festival.

Haggis’ Italian attorney said the filmmaker was innocent, and in early July, a judge released him while prosecutors considered whether to pursue their inquiry. The judge concluded that Haggis hadn’t engaged in “constrictive violent behavior,” according to the newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The Associated Press does not usually name people alleging sexual assault unless they come forward publicly, as Breest has done.

The Canadian-born Haggis wrote “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash,” which won back-to-back Academy Awards for best picture in the mid-2000s. He also directed and was a producer of “Crash,” which garnered him and Bobby Moresco the best original screenplay Oscar in 2006. The next year, Haggis was nominated in the same category for “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

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Suit over rape claim against filmmaker Haggis heads to trial