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Here Come the Lawsuits

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Today comes a story out of Germany that Gunther Dahms, who ran the Coast team off a cliff, wants to sue Jan Ullrich to recover money for violating a contractual term that he not take drugs.

Dahms is now keen to discover whether Ullrich breached his contract when he rode for the Coast team and could seek financial compensation if evidence is forthcoming. "In the Coast team contract we reached an agreement with Ullrich that doping was prohibited," Dahms said in Spiegel magazine.

The story goes on to mention that Dahms lost an appeal to Ullrich for 1.6mil Euros, a/k/a Ullrich's salary, payment of which is apparently inconvenient to Dahms.

What does this mean? Some ideas, on the flip...

First off, Dahms comes off as a slimeball. I don't know his story, so I'll bite my tongue a bit, but Coast went bankrupt in the middle of 2003, with Ullrich training hard (we guess) for the Tour, and nobody said that had anything to do with drug suspicions. So from these base facts, Dahms' interest in drugs now is little more than a post-hoc excuse for his own failures.

However, this is the second shot across the bow this week from the Pro Tour plaintiffs' bar. Both Dahms and Patrick Lefevre have suggested that doping riders can be sued by their teams, or the sport... neither offering much of a legal theory, but we can think of a couple. Dahms sounds like he's claiming breach of contract, the remedy for which is usually some sort of refund, and maybe additional damages to the other contract party.

Lefevre was even more vague (unhinged?), but let's assume since he doesn't have a contract with Landis that he's suggesting a tort action, i.e. a claim of being harmed. The name of the tort doesn't matter necessarily but let's call it sporting fraud. The basic elements, whether you call it fraud or something else, would be: 1) the rider took drugs; 2) the rider knew he wasn't supposed to take drugs; 3) the sport of Cycling was relying on him to not take drugs; and 4) because Cycling relied on him not to do something he did, Cycling is harmed. You can quibble with the details, but I think that's close.

Can this succeed? Well, putting Landis aside, 1 & 2 will be slam dunks for any case involving a proven cheat. As for 4, there's probably something there, but except in the case of Landis, I don't know how you identify the harm and attribute it to one person. We all know about doping, so when David Millar confesses... does it change anything? Good luck proving that. Even in Landis' case, assuming the other elements, what "losses" do you attribute to it? Landis didn't invent doping, and the harm has been caused not so much by one rider's transgressions but by the accumulating guilt.

And then there is #3. Here's where it gets really sticky for Cycling. Proving that the sport itself, or an individual team, was relying on a rider to ride clean could turn the spotlight around. If I'm Ullrich's lawyer, I'd be asking Coast... what did you do to stop doping? Or more to the point, what did you do to tacitly encourage it? Maybe I am way off here, but I find it impossible to believe that the teams and managers all have clean hands. Any showing that Cycling stood by knowingly and let it happen and you are getting close to defeating this claim. Any showing at all that it was encouraged, and you can kiss your claim goodbye. If I'm the defense attorney, I would promise the team a long and thorough look into their own doping connections.

As for the contracts claim, breach is a simple enough matter: your contract said don't do drugs, you did them: breach. The non-breaching party can void the rest of the deal, but after that? I haven't studied contract remedies since the Indurain era, but I seem to recall that you either have to have damages agreed to ahead of time ("if you take drugs, you return all salary"), or you show how you were harmed by the breach. Well, Coast wasn't harmed in the slightest way, they were too busy disgracing themselves. Phonak, on the other hand, might have better luck.

I guess if there's a single point here, besides trying to guess how lawsuits might go, it's that Cycling, or the teams, or guys like Patrick Lefevre, look like sanctimonious hypocrites if they try to come after the riders for harming them. Doping is a shared responsibility on some level, and though riders bear the greatest share, you don't have to rewind the story too far back to find teams forcing riders to take drugs. If I believed in religion, I might say that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. And it damn sure isn't Patrick Lefevre.