A Manhattan jury awarded a total of $10,000,000 to publicist Heleigh Breest after a weeks-long civil trial. The trial focused on Breest’s allegations of sexual abuse against movie producer Paul Haggis.
In January of 2013, Haggis and Breest both attended a movie premiere in New York City. Afterward, Haggis offered Breest a ride home and ultimately ended up convincing her to have a drink at his SoHo apartment. Once they arrived, Breest maintained Haggis began making forceful sexual advances. Breest claimed she resisted, but ultimately, Haggis forced her to perform oral sex and raped her. The jury found in favor of Breest and awarded her compensatory as well as punitive damages.
An analysis of this case suggests that the defense was unable to defuse anger. Sexual situations involving a powerful man and a much younger, less powerful woman often provoke righteous anger in jurors. Here, the defense instead fueled and compounded this anger by attacking the victim as completely in the wrong with no room for shared responsibility.
For instance, during the trial, Haggis’ lawyers labeled the victim an “absolute liar” and a “jealous woman.”[i] The defense blamed the victim completely by claiming Breest had a crush on Haggis and turned vindictive when he “politely rejected” her following a one-night stand.[ii]
While a defense surrounding unrequited affection can be truthful and compelling, Haggis may have been better served by accepting minimal responsibility for misreading the situation and not understanding the signals being sent between the two adults. This might have defused the anger surrounding a possible assumption from the jury that Haggis was an older, powerful male used to getting his way in sexual situations. But instead of allowing for any miscalculation on Haggis’ part, his attorneys instead tried to portray him as the sole victim, calling the accusations a “blatant cash grab.”[iii]
Attempting to mitigate damages, Haggis testified the case had drained his finances and destroyed his career in filmmaking. While this is a very real consequence of the lawsuit, it does not adequately address his own possible missteps over a long career, pre-#MeToo, when there was a more permissive environment for men.
In particular, Haggis’ victim-blaming strategy fell flat when, after the suit was filed, four other women came forward and accused Haggis of raping or attempting to sexually assaulting them in incidents unfolding between 1996 and 2015.[iv] The jury heard testimony from each of these women, but Haggis still denied it all.[v] It is possible this flat, uncompromising denial did more harm than good to Haggis.[vi]
Haggis also lost credibility with regard to the specific facts of the case: Haggis admitted that oral sex had occurred (on Breest’s part) but denied remembering sexual intercourse had occurred. Of course, no one can say for sure which of the divergent accounts is completely true. But when pairing Haggis’ testimony to Breest’s (which was more detailed and did not allow for lack of memory), hers was more complete and unequivocal.
One thing is certain: civil and criminal cases are won or lost depending on the theme of the case. The theme is the psychological anchor, the central idea, or the repeating mantra around which the case revolves. A theme can be a quote from a witness, a line from literature or popular culture, or a common aphorism. In each and every case, it is crucial to have a compelling theme that is weaved and utilized throughout from jury selection through summation.
In the Haggis’ case, plaintiff’s theme may have focused on Haggis. Haggis, they asserted, was a manipulator and psychopath with a history and pattern of abusing women.[vii] Plaintiff’s counsel was able to fortify this theme with testimony from Haggis’ other accusers.[viii] This theme of Haggis as a manipulative predator and womanizer was carried through to summation. The summation capitalized on the key issues which contributed to the verdict.
“We have to face the cold, hard truth—Paul Haggis is a monster,” plaintiff’s attorney Ilann Maazel told the court Wednesday. “He is a psychopath. He is cunning and deceitful and manipulative. He sexually assaulted five women, and he has the gall to get up on that stand and play the victim.”[ix]
True or not, these electrifying, galvanizing words needed to be answered and tempered by a competing theme. Haggis did not seem to have a competing theme to encapsulate his version of events. Haggis did not have to accuse Breest of being a brazen, cynical liar with an utterly made-up story. Rather, he could have portrayed her as a willing participant in a sexual tryst who may have misread signals and (more importantly) decided to unfairly seek legal recourse much later. An important lesson from this case seems to be that if a jury believes they are being manipulated or tricked, then the defense will lose all credibility.
[i] Geiger, D. (2022, November 12). Director Paul Haggis found liable for raping woman after movie premiere. The Daily Beast. Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://www.thedailybeast.com/paul-haggis-trial-concludes-as-jury-reaches-verdict-in-rape-case-brought-by-haleigh-breest
[ii] Geiger, D. (2022, November 12). Director Paul Haggis found liable for raping woman after movie premiere. The Daily Beast. Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://www.thedailybeast.com/paul-haggis-trial-concludes-as-jury-reaches-verdict-in-rape-case-brought-by-haleigh-breest
[iii] Geiger, D. (2022, November 12). Director Paul Haggis found liable for raping woman after movie premiere. The Daily Beast. Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://www.thedailybeast.com/paul-haggis-trial-concludes-as-jury-reaches-verdict-in-rape-case-brought-by-haleigh-breest
[iv] Geiger, D. (2022, November 12). Director Paul Haggis found liable for raping woman after movie premiere. The Daily Beast. Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://www.thedailybeast.com/paul-haggis-trial-concludes-as-jury-reaches-verdict-in-rape-case-brought-by-haleigh-breest
[v] Geiger, D. (2022, November 12). Director Paul Haggis found liable for raping woman after movie premiere. The Daily Beast. Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://www.thedailybeast.com/paul-haggis-trial-concludes-as-jury-reaches-verdict-in-rape-case-brought-by-haleigh-breest
[vi] Jacobs, J. (2022, November 10). Jury says Paul Haggis raped woman after film premiere. The New York Times. Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/10/movies/paul-haggis-verdict.html
[vii] DeGregory, P. (2022, November 9). ‘Crash’ director Paul Haggis is a ‘monster,’ ‘psychopath’, rape accuser’s lawyer says as case closes. The New York Post. Retrieved January 5, 2023, from https://nypost.com/2022/11/09/paul-haggis-rape-accuser-is-spurned-lover-lawyer/.
[viii] Piccoli, S. and Pedersen, E. (2022, November 14). Deadline. Paul Haggis Civil Trial: Jury Awards $2.5M In Punitive Damages; Oscar Winner Says He Will Appeal & “Die Clearing My Name” – Update. Retrieved January 5, 2023, at https://deadline.com/2022/11/paul-haggis-verdict-rape-trial-liable-on-all-counts-1235168390/.
[ix] Geiger, D. (2022, November 12). Director Paul Haggis found liable for raping woman after movie premiere. The Daily Beast. Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://www.thedailybeast.com/paul-haggis-trial-concludes-as-jury-reaches-verdict-in-rape-case-brought-by-haleigh-breest