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Lance Armstrong sued for fraud over book fabrications

Lance Armstrong walks back to his car after running at Mount Royal park with fans in Montreal August 29, 2012. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
Lance Armstrong walks back to his car after running at Mount Royal park with fans in Montreal August 29, 2012. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

By Alison Frankel

(Reuters) - Two California men have sued Lance Armstrong and his book publishers for fraud and false advertising, claiming that the cyclist's best-selling memoirs, billed as non-fiction, were revealed to be filled with lies after he confessed last week to systematic doping.

The class-action complaint was filed in federal court in Sacramento, California on Tuesday, five days after Armstrong ended years of vehement denial and admitted in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey that he had cheated his way to a record seven Tour de France titles through the use of banned, performance-enhancing drugs.

The named plaintiffs in the suit were Rob Stutzman, a public relations executive who served as a deputy chief of staff for former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jonathan Wheeler, a chef and amateur cyclist.

They said they bought the books "It's Not About the Bike" and "Every Second Counts" because they believed in Armstrong and his story of returning without drug assistance to the Tour de France after a nearly fatal bout with testicular cancer.

Following Armstrong's doping confession, however, Stutzman and Wheeler said they felt "duped," "cheated" and "betrayed" by the realization that the books, marketed as inspirational true-life memoirs, were replete with fabrications.

Their lawsuit accuses Armstrong and his publishers, Penguin and Random House, of violating consumer protection laws on false advertising and fraud by selling the books as works of non-fiction.

Lawyers for the purported class of Armstrong book buyers say readers are entitled to restitution and possibly statutory and punitive damages for deceptions. They say the publishers should have detected these, even though Armstrong passed drug screenings for various international cycling competitions.

A similar lawsuit was filed in 2011 against Greg Mortenson, co-author of the best seller "Three Cups of Tea," accusing him of fabricating much of his story about promoting education for impoverished girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

That suit, which alleged fraud and unjust enrichment, was dismissed last year by a federal judge in Montana.

The Montana suit was sparked by a critical report by CBS television's "60 Minutes" program challenging the credibility of biographical details in "Three Cups," including Mortenson's account of being kidnapped in Pakistan's Waziristan region after trying unsuccessfully to scale the mountain K2.

The legal cry of fraud against Mortenson followed the example of readers who won a $2.75 million settlement from literary hoaxer James Frey who, like Armstrong, confessed his deception in an interview with Winfrey. His settlement marked a rare victory for aggrieved book buyers.

One potentially significant advantage held by litigants suing Armstrong is that their was filed under California's exceptionally plaintiff-friendly consumer protections laws.

Penguin will be represented in the Armstrong suit by the firm Dorsey & Whitney, which won the Mortenson case for his publisher. The lawyers are sure to raise the same First Amendment and implied-duty defenses in the new case as in the "Three Cups" dispute.

Dorsey partner Jonathan Herman declined to comment on how the publisher will respond to the Armstrong complaint's California-law claims but said, "As far as we're concerned, this is also a case that should be dismissed."

(Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Christopher Wilson)

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