Family awarded $10.5 million for newlywed beheaded by gate at Utah park
The United States will pay family members of a Ugandan human rights activist who was killed in a 2020 accident at Arches National Park more than $10 million in damages, a federal judge ruled this week. Esther "Essie" Nakajjigo was decapitated when a metal gate at the park sliced through the passenger door of a car driven by her new husband.
Though the amount was substantially less than pursued, attorneys representing the family of Nakajjigo celebrated the judgment, saying it was the largest federal wrongful death verdict in Utah history.
"By his verdict, Judge Bruce Jenkins has shown the world how the American justice system works to hold its own government accountable and greatly values all lives, including that of Esther Nakajjigo, a remarkable young woman from Uganda," Randi McGinn, the family's attorney, said in a statement.
Jenkins called the death "gruesome and overwhelmingly shocking," CBS Colorado reported.
Family of Esther Nakajjigo awarded over $10 million from U.S. government for "gruesome and overwhelmingly shocking" death https://t.co/BUPoNZshjl pic.twitter.com/wIKrxrYJwI
In his 10-page decision, the judge called the case unusual for several reasons, the first being that neither the victim nor the plaintiffs were U.S. citizens, the station reported.
Nakajjigo and her husband Ludovic Michaud were vacationing in eastern Utah, visiting the region's national parks months after their wedding. Recreation areas had recently opened after pandemic-era closures and, on the edge of Arches, a metal gate normally secured with a lock was left untethered.
As the couple was leaving the park, gusts of wind swung the gate around rapidly, enough to slice through the passenger side door of the couple's car, decapitating Nakajjigo as her husband sat feet away in the driver's seat.
The gruesome nature of Nakajjigo's death and the fact that she was a renowned Ugandan women's rights activist drew widespread attention to the case.
Nakajjigo, who was 25, lived with her husband in Denver, where she moved to attend a leadership course on a full scholarship. She rose from poverty to become the host of a solutions-oriented reality television series in Uganda focused on empowering women on issues such as education and health care, and had successfully raised funds to build health care facilities in her hometown.
The TV series helped child mothers stay in school and develop life skills, according to The Denver Post.
"The show saw an audience of 6.3 million each week, and Nakajjigo was named Uganda's 'Young Personality of the Year,'" the Post reported.
Because neither the U.S. nor Nakajjigo's family disputed the facts of the case, the civil suit focused largely on the amount of damages merited. Attorneys representing Michaud and Nakajjigo's parents asked for $140 million in damages, while the government said an appropriate award would be roughly $3.5 million.
Jenkins awarded Michaud $9.5 million; Nakajjigo's mother, Christine Namagembe, $700,000; and her father, John Bosco Kateregga, $350,000.
The lawsuit alleges that a simple $8 padlock could have prevented the gate from swinging, and claims the park violated regulations, CBS Colorado reported.
"For want of an $8 basic padlock, our world lost an extraordinary warrior for good," the claim said.
Throughout the trial, attorneys debated estimates of Nakajjigo's earnings potential. McGinn, representing Nakajjigo's family, likened her to a nonprofit CEO for an American charity and said she would have likely made millions throughout her life. Attorneys representing the U.S. commended her work, yet noted her most recent job was working at a restaurant making $15 per hour.
In his judgment, Jenkins said the government had provided "a more reasonable projection" of Nakajjigo's earnings potential.