UM Sues Donor Behind Famed Shark Research Program, Alleging Missing Money

UM's famed shark research program is locked in a legal dispute with a big funder.
UM's famed shark research program is locked in a legal dispute with a big funder.

Shark programs hit the sweet spot for ocean-side research universities — weighty enough with scientific import to justify the eyeballs of the hard-core scientific community, gnarly enough to reel in the interest of your plain ol' Discovery Chanel fiends.

For almost a decade, the University of Miami has been one of the worldwide leaders is the shark-verse. Led by Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, the college's R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program has hustled in research areas such as coral restoration and water pollution effects. Yet the program's work tagging and tracking the ocean's top predators remains its most high-profile.

Now a legal tussle between the program and the family from which it takes its name could threaten that research's funding stream. The university has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Southern District of Florida against the estate of the program's namesake donor, arguing that funding promises have been broken.

The relationship between UM and the family of R.J. and Marion Dunlap goes back to Hammerschlag's days as a grad student in the early '00s. The wealthy couple called Minnesota home but spent half the year in the Florida Keys. R.J., an insurance executive, was a big-time fisherman and snorkeler. After his death in 1986, Marion continued to spend time south; eventually, she met the grad student Hammerschlag and became keen on his work. In 2009, she decided to invest money in a program supporting UM's research as a tribute to her late husband.

Under the terms of the gift, included in recent court filings, Dunlap agreed to pay the school $100,000 every year. After her death, the agreement stipulated a gift of $3 million would be made to the school.

Between 2009 and 2013, Marion Dunlap cut five $100,000 checks as promised. But in 2014, she failed to come through with the money. Then, in February 2015, she passed away.

In the intervening months, the Dunlap estate has failed to award the $3 million gift to the school, UM contends. Last June, the Dunlap estate denied the university's claim on the estate. Now the school has filed a federal lawsuit for breach of contract against the Dunlap estate for $3.2 million — the posthumous gift as well as the 2014 and 2015 payments.

A UM spokesperson declined to comment on the case because of the ongoing litigation. Timothy Ridley, an attorney for the Dunlap estate, also declined to comment.

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