Esther Nakajjigo was a Ugandan human rights activist and newlywed wife when the 25-year-old was killed at Arches National Park in 2020, decapitated by an unsecured gate that is now at the center of a wrongful death trial.
The federal trial began Monday in Utah, where the husband and family of Nakajjigo are seeking $140 million in damages from the U.S. government, arguing in a complaint that the national park was negligent and failed to properly maintain the gate.
The lawsuit was filed about a year after Nakajjigo was killed in June 2020, when wind apparently caused the unsecured, metal gate on the park’s main road to swing around and strike her and her husband’s car, decapitating her.
Who was Esther Nakajjigo?
Esther Nakajjigo was born in poverty in Kampala, Uganda, and rose to become a celebrated human rights activist through her work focusing on preventing teen pregnancy.
When she was 17, she donated her university tuition money to start a private, nonprofit community health center that she named the Princess Diana Health Centre. She was named Uganda’s ambassador for women and girls.
She met Ludovic Michaud in Boulder, Colorado, when she went there for a leadership accelerator program in 2019, and the two of them married in March 2020.
By age 25, when she died, “she had accomplished more than most people do in an entire lifetime and had much more to do with her life,” court documents state.
Her mother flew to Utah from Uganda to attend the trial this week.
The newly married Michaud and Nakajjigo took a weekend trip to Arches National Park as a “welcome break” after months of lockdown amid the pandemic, court documents said.
On June 13, 2020, Nakajjigo, who was riding in the passenger seat as her husband drove them out of the park, was suddenly decapitated when the triangular, metal gate swung around and sliced into their rental car.
Nakajjigo was killed instantly. Drenched in his wife’s blood, Michaud instinctively jumped out of the slowly moving car after impact, then got back in to put it in park.
Nakajigo’s family and Michaud are suing the U.S. government for negligence as well as negligent infliction of emotional distress on the part of Michaud, who had to witness the grisly scene.
According to a court filing, the National Park Service and Arches National Park created a “lethal and undetectable danger” with the gate, which “turned a metal pipe into a spear that went straight through the side of a car, decapitating and killing Esther Nakajjigo.”
The U.S. government has admitted responsibility for Nakajjigo’s death and for the emotional distress inflicted upon her husband, an attorney for the plaintiffs said.
The ongoing trial will largely focus on determining the damages that may go to her family and Michaud.