A federal judge in Utah on Monday awarded more than $10.5 million to the family of Esther “Essie” Nakajjigo, a Ugandan human rights activist who was decapitated in Arches National Park in 2020.
Nakajjigo’s husband, Ludovic Michaud, and her parents had sued the U.S. government for negligence as well as emotional distress on the part of Michaud, who had to witness his wife’s grisly death.
As part of the decision, Michaud will receive $9.5 million while Nakajjigo’s mother and father will each receive $700,000 and $350,000, respectively.
Zoe Littlepage, a lead attorney on the case, said that “on behalf of the family, we are very appreciative of the judge’s attention to detail, the time he spent working on this, and for the value he put on the loss to this family of Essie.”
She added, “This 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 acknowledged that Nakajjigo’s family were entitled to damages.
“We respect the judge’s decision and hope this award will help her loved ones as they continue to heal for this tragedy,” the statement read. “On behalf of the United States, we again extend our condolences to Ms. Nakajjigo’s friends, family and beloved community.”
What happened to Esther Nakajjigo?
Nakajjigo and Michaud had been married about three months when they decided to travel together to Arches. To Michaud, it was one of the most beautiful places in the country.
The weekend trip in June 2020 was a “welcome break” after months of lockdown, court documents state. Photos taken at the park show the two of them smiling together. But on June 13, 2020, one year from the day they met, it all went horribly wrong.
The couple packed a picnic and spent the day hiking through the park. As a joke, Nakajjigo wore a shirt that read, “Everything hurts and I’m dying,” to express her feelings about hiking.
Later that hot day, the couple left to get ice cream, heading out on the park’s main road. Michaud testified that he remembers his wife talking about what a good day it had been.
Suddenly, an unsecured metal gate was caught by wind and swung into the roadway. The end of the gate pierced the passenger side of the couple’s rental car, impaling Nakajjigo and severing her head.
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.
Michaud still remembers the metallic smell of the blood, court documents state. He said he had to stay in his blood-soaked clothes all day and night until he returned to Colorado, and had to use cotton swabs to get all the blood out of his ears.
The federal lawsuit was filed about a year after Nakajjigo was killed, and the trial began Dec. 5 in Utah, where Michaud and Nakajjigo’s parents sought $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.
According to court documents, the National Park Service and Arches National Park created an “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.”
Randi McGinn, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Michaud still has PTSD from the trauma he experienced that day. “Beheadings have always held a special horror for human beings,” the attorney said. Michaud said he doesn’t own a TV, for fear of accidentally seeing a bloody scene in a movie or TV show.
During the trial, an attorney representing the U.S. government said, “The United States was 100% at fault. … And we want to express on behalf of the United States our profound sorrow for your loss.”
The trial mainly sought to determine the damages that might go to her family and Michaud. Nakajjigo’s mother and brother flew to Utah from Uganda to attend.
Who was Esther Nakajjigo?
A “pearl beyond price” with “limitless” potential and vision. Such is how Nakajjigo was described during opening statements in the December trial.
McGinn told the court how Nakajjigo was born into abject poverty to an unwed teen mother, and showed fearlessness and intelligence even as a young girl.
When she was 17, Nakajjigo donated her university tuition money to start a private, nonprofit community health center that she named the Princess Diana Health Centre. The United Nations Population Fund awarded her a Woman Achiever Award, and at the awards ceremony, she was named Uganda’s ambassador for women and girls.
Nakajjigo was passionate about reducing teenage pregnancy, and she created two reality television shows that sought to empower women.
By age 25, “she had accomplished more than most people do in an entire lifetime and had much more to do with her life,” court documents state.
In 2019, she met Michaud on Tinder in Boulder, Colorado, where she was attending a leadership accelerator program. Michaud had moved to Colorado from Paris. The two of them wed on March 23, 2020.
Michaud described his wife in court on Dec. 9 as a caring, funny and generous woman who sang “all the time.” He said that the two of them bought a Christmas tree for his sparse apartment but never took it down, and instead replaced the holiday ornaments with seasonal decorations, like rabbits for Easter, or birthday hats.
He described his time with Nakajjigo as “the best time in my life” and said he’d never felt more loved. Without her, Michaud told The Salt Lake Tribune that “it feels lonely, and that’s hard. A lot of things remind me of her. There is a lot of small things I miss.”
The couple had planned to buy a home together and have children. Before her death, they felt like they were living “the American Dream,” he said.
Michaud had told The Tribune that he had two goals with the trial: First, to make sure that such an accident would never happen again. And second, to receive enough in damages that he’d be able to continue Nakajjigo’s work and initiatives with women and girls, especially in Uganda and “maybe also beyond,” he said.