Judge awards $10.55M in Arches accidental beheading trial
Esther “Essie” Nakajjigo was 25 when, during a camping trip to Arches National Park in June 2020, she was beheaded by a metal gate that blew closed in strong winds and sliced through the side of the car she was riding in
The family of a woman killed by an unsecured gate at Arches National Park will be awarded $10.55 million in damages, a district court judge ruled Monday.
Esther "Essie" Nakajjigo was 25 when, during a camping trip to Arches National Park in June 2020, she was beheaded by a metal gate that blew closed in strong winds and sliced through the side of the car she was riding in. The gate had been unsecured for the previous two weeks, despite national park requirements that prohibit gates from swinging, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
The gate narrowly missed Nakajiigo's husband, Ludovic Michaud, who was driving. He was "instantly covered with blood," the complaint says.
Nakajjigo's family sued the government for the largest federal award ever asked for in both state and national history, according to plaintiffs' attorney Randi McGinn, seeking $140 million in damages.
U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins awarded $9.5 million to Michaud; $700,000 to Christine Namagembe, Nakajjigo's mother; and $350,000 to John Bosco Kataregga, Nakajjigo's father.
Jenkins wrote in his ruling that "the case is unusual in a number of ways." For one thing, Michaud is a French citizen and Nakajjigo and her parents are Ugandan. Michaud and Nakajjigo were both living in the United States when they met and married.
For another, the question of liability was never at issue.
"The United States has apologized for its actions and acknowledged that it alone was responsible and emphasized that Mr. Michaud was in no way responsible," Jenkins wrote.
Rather, the matter before the court was the amount in damages appropriate to the situation, the court said.
"The effort to substitute money for the damages each plaintiff suffered of a life early and tragically taken from each of them, while always inexact, is the best that can be done in a culture such as ours," Jenkins wrote. "(Michaud's) loss of his contemplated lifetime connection, includes ... such things as sympathy, compassion, conversation, love, companionship, civility, indeed the benefits which flow from a happy marriage. ... There is genuinely no satisfactory metric to measure those losses with precision."
During a six-day trial held in December 2022, Nakajjigo was described as "the ambassador of hope," "the princess of hearts," and "a pearl of great price," among other descriptors.
The women's rights activist was born in "abject poverty" in Uganda, plaintiffs' attorney Randi McGinn said during the trial, but she grew up to start a hospital, create a reality TV show dedicated to helping teen moms start businesses and to serve as Uganda's ambassador for women and girls, among other accomplishments.
Economic arguments during the trial differed widely, with two experts projecting that Nakajjigo would have earned at least $9 million in her lifetime and a third who estimated Nakajjigo would have made between about $750,000 and $938,000.
McGinn argued that the smaller projections were based on categories of evaluation not allowed for under Utah law. The smaller projection takes into account only the averages of a statistical black woman, she said, while the higher projections factor in that Nakajjigo was a real, extraordinary person.
But U.S. Attorney Amanda Berndt said while there's no question that the plaintiffs are entitled to a reward, a proper calculation of Nakajjigo's lost earnings must include the possibility that she might have left the workforce at some point for a variety of reasons.
Berndt also said her team could take into account only Nakajjigo's education and earning history at the time of her death, exclusive from the money she raised for charitable organizations.
Additionally, Berndt said the plaintiffs could only speculate on what Nakajjigo might have done had she lived, and the court can't ignore that "in favor of dreams and potential."
The trial also included testimony from Nakajjigo's family, friends and mentors, as well as from bystanders who witnessed the accident.
Michaud spoke about the intense trauma he's endured since his wife's death, including sleeplessness, nightmares and suicidal ideation. He no longer has a TV in his apartment because the sight of any blood is triggering, he said.
He spoke, too, about the difficulty of sending his wife's body to Uganda in a cardboard box; how only her hands, one of them broken, were visible at her funeral; and how he moved to a new apartment after the accident, unable to bear the reminders of the life he'd shared with Nakajjigo.
Michaud said he and Nakajjigo were two weeks shy of closing on a condo when the accident occurred, with hopes of owning a house down the road. They had wanted three children.
"I'm doing whatever I can to get better. It's really a full-time job," he said.