The family of a Ugandan activist decapitated when an unsecured metal gate pierced the car she and her husband were in during a weekend getaway at Arches National Park will receive a $10.5 million civil judgment in a wrongful death and negligence case.
Esther Nakajjigo’s husband, Ludovic Michaud, who witnessed his 25-year-old wife’s horrific death, will receive $9.5 million. Nakajjigo’s mother and father will each receive $700,000 and $350,000, according to the judgment signed last Friday.
Zoe Littlepage, the family’s attorney, told the Salt Lake Tribune that it is the largest verdict from a federal judge in Utah history.
Trina Higgins, U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah, said in a statement Monday that the U.S. government respects the judge’s decision.
“On behalf of the United States, we again extend our condolences to Ms. Nakajjigo’s friends, family and beloved community,” Higgins said, according to the newspaper.
An attorney representing the U.S. said during the trial that the government “was 100% at fault,” the Salt Lake Tribune also reported. The main purpose of the trial was to determine the damages that would go to Nakajjigo’s family and Michaud.
A call Thursday to the National Park Service was not immediately returned.
The tragedy happened on June 13, 2020. Court documents lay out the details of the incident.
The newlyweds, eager for a weekend excursion after the stressful and tiring COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, had traveled to Arches, the majestic red-rock formations that showcase the rugged beauty of the American Southwest.
After touring the park, the couple drove their rental on the only roadway out of the park.
“Suddenly, and without warning, the unsecured stop sign metal gate was caught by the wind and swung into the roadway, directly into their car’s path of travel,” the complaint said. “The end of the lance-like gate pierced the passenger side of their car, impaling and severing Essie Nakajjigo’s head and face from her body, fragmenting her brain into pieces, and mangling her right arm from shoulder to fingers.”
Her husband was covered with blood.
News of Nakajjigo’s death reverberated throughout the world. Condolences, including from world leaders, poured in.
Two funeral services were held in Uganda, and a street was renamed Princess Essie Avenue in her honor. She worked to improve conditions for women in her home country and was dubbed the “Princess of Hearts.”
In an interview with CBS Colorado in November 2020, Michaud said she changed him.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to move forward, how to wake up in the morning,” he told the station.
The lawsuit said an $8 lock could have prevented the tragedy.
“When these metal spear-like gates are opened, they must be secured to a metal pole, called a ‘gate keeper’ or a ‘receiver post,’ with a lock,” the complaint states. “The lock can be purchased for $8.”
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