The civil rape trial of Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning filmmaker best known for his work on “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash,” continued on Friday in a lower Manhattan courtroom.
Former publicist Haleigh Breest, who filed a lawsuit against Haggis in 2017, was cross-examined by defense attorney Priya Chaudhry for most of the day. Breest alleges that the filmmaker forced her to perform oral sex and then raped her in his Soho apartment.
After a limited number of interactions at industry events, Breest encountered Haggis at an after-party on Jan. 31, 2013, before heading back to his home. The event was hosted by the Cinema Society, where Breest worked as a freelance film publicist for eight years. She was let go after her lawsuit against Haggis was filed in 2017.
“It was devastating because I had done that since the end of college. My friends worked the evenings. There was a whole community,” she said. “It was hard to be cut off from that.”
Chaudhry repeatedly pressed Breest on how many drinks she had at the event. The former publicist surmised that she “felt a little bit tipsy” but not intoxicated at the industry party she was working at, which followed the film premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects.” As the event was wrapping up, Breest alleges she initially believed Haggis offered her a ride home but was later asked to come to his apartment.
“Will you come over for a drink?” Breest recalled Haggis asking before getting in the car. “I have a great wine collection.”
Breest said she ultimately “felt pressured” to enter the car with Haggis. She claimed that he became “agitated” and “really angry” after she suggested that they go to a bar instead of going back to his home.
After entering the filmmaker’s home, Breest said Haggis’ advances occurred so quickly that she didn’t have time to ask about charging her dead phone.
“Right when I put my bags down, that’s when he came towards me,” Breest said. When she pushed back against Haggis kissing her, the filmmaker allegedly told her, “Don’t act like a fucking 18-year-old.”
She continued, “and then he started slobbering all over my face.”
Breest testified that she “no longer felt safe around guys” and struggled with body image issues after her 2013 encounter with Haggis.
“I wanted to just discard my body and not be seen in a sexual way,” she said.
Breest also noted that her intake of Ambien and Ativan “significantly increased” after 2013. She went on to reference medical records that showed she took Lexapro from December 2017 to the beginning of 2020 to combat feelings of anxiety and depression.
Chaudhry thoroughly questioned Breest about four individual sexual experiences with different men, including the one with Haggis, and emphasized how they were all “one-night stands” with drinking involved. Breest revealed that she’s only had sex one time since Haggis allegedly raped her.
“It was awkward and I didn’t feel comfortable,” Breest recalled of the 2015 sexual encounter. “I had flashbacks of being assaulted.”
Towards the end of the day in court, Breest was asked by Chaudhry to physically demonstrate how she squirmed when Haggis made an advance on her. She then jolted back and appeared startled when an in-house photographer snapped a photo of her.
While Chaudhry isn’t finished with cross-examination, the trial will resume on Monday morning with testimony from one of the plaintiff’s witnesses, who is flying into New York from out of town.
Breest’s attorney, Zoe Salzman, released a statement saying, “Over the course of many hours, Paul Haggis’s lawyer tried and failed to get Haleigh Breest to waver in her credible and corroborated testimony that Haggis raped her. The Judge dismissed the jury after Haggis’s lawyer went so far as to demand Ms. Breest stand up and reenact the rape, causing Ms. Breest to break down into tears. Trial resumes Monday, when the jury will hear first from another woman assaulted by Haggis before his lawyers are permitted to resume their cross-examination of Ms. Breest. To date, the evidence has entirely supported Ms. Breest and condemned Haggis, and we expect that will continue Monday with powerful additional testimony from this other survivor and Ms. Breest.”
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