LONDON – Lance Armstrong won a preliminary court ruling Friday in a libel case against a British newspaper over doping allegations.
The High Court in London ruled in favor of the seven-time Tour de France champion, saying an article published in The Sunday Times in June 2004 "meant accusation of guilt and not simply reasonable grounds to suspect."
After reading the article, along with the headline, photographs and captions, any "reasonable reader would have understood (the article) ... to mean that Mr. Armstrong had taken drugs to enhance his performance in cycling competitions," Judge Charles Gray said.
The verdict means the newspaper will go to trial having to defend the position it is accusing Armstrong of using drugs and not that it was simply raising "questions" about his conduct as a professional cyclist.
The trial, expected to last a week, is scheduled to begin on Nov. 21.
"I am extremely happy with today's judgment, which is the latest in a series of consistent rulings in our favor," Armstrong said in a statement. "I always said that the article falsely alleged that I was guilty of doping. The article was based on untrue allegations which are without substance contained in a book published only in France."
Armstrong is suing the newspaper for printing a review of the book "LA Confidential, The Secrets of Lance Armstrong" in June 2004.
The article reprinted allegations that Armstrong had taken performance enhancing drugs. Armstrong has denied all doping allegations.
The book, co-written by then Sunday Times chief sportswriter David Walsh and Pierre Ballester, a former writer for French sports paper L'Equipe, was published in France in French shortly before the 2004 Tour de France. The two authors and the writer of the article, Alan English, are also included in the lawsuit.
Armstrong's lawyer, Richard Spearman, argued that the article "contains a large number of assertions which ... point inexorably towards (Armstrong) being guilty of taking drugs."
Andrew Caldecott, the newspaper's lawyer, replied that any "reasonable reader does not and should not seize on the most defamatory meaning."
He said the article did not appear in the news pages, and raised many "questions" which were rebutted by Armstrong. This is enough to justify "reasonable grounds exist for suspicion but it would not justify a further elevation to a meaning of guilt," Caldecott argued.
But the judge said that interpretation would mean Armstrong's conduct was "fraudulent" and his subsequent denials would be "lies".
"The reference to the sport being riven with drugs would doubtless be in the mind of readers when they come to later passages in the article," Judge Gray said.
"I remain of the opinion that the Sunday Times article of June 13, 2004 bears the meaning for which Armstrong contends," he added.