Family of Woman Beheaded by Utah Park Gate Wants $140M

Family says Esther Nakajjigo, 25, could have become a highly paid nonprofit boss
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 6, 2022 12:39 PM CST
Family of Woman Beheaded by Utah Park Gate Wants $140M
Delicate Arch is seen at Arches National Park in April 2021 near Moab, Utah.   (AP Photo/Lindsay Whitehurst, File)

Ludovic Michaud was driving around the scenic red rock landscapes of Utah's Arches National Park on a windy spring day in 2020 when something unthinkable happened. A metal gate whipped around, sliced through the passenger door of his car, and decapitated his new 25-year-old wife, Esther Nakajjigo. The accident is now the subject of a wrongful death lawsuit Michaud and Nakajjigo's family are pursuing, in which they argue that the US Park Service was negligent and did not maintain the gates at the entrances and exits to the parks, leading to Nakajjigo's death. In opening statements Monday in Salt Lake City, the AP reports, attorneys representing Michaud and Nakajjigo's family said they were seeking $140 million in damages from the government.

The family's lawsuit claims that when Arches reopened in April 2020 after being shuttered due to COVID-19, rangers at the national park in Utah didn't secure the gate in place, which in effect "turned a metal pipe into a spear." US attorneys do not dispute that park officials shouldered blame but argued the amount the family should be awarded is far less and called into question the ways in which the damages being sought were calculated. They said claims by the family's lawyers that Nakajjigo, who was 25 at the time of her death, was on track to be a nonprofit CEO shortly were too speculative to be used as a basis for damages. "We don't know with any level of certainty what her plans were," Assistant US Attorney Jeffrey Nelson said.

Opening statements indicated the trial will focus on Nakajiigo's earning potential, which is used to calculate a portion of the damages. McGinn said if her life hadn't been cut short that Nakajjigo's trajectory suggested she would have gone on to become a nonprofit CEO who could eventually have had an annual income in the hundreds of thousands of dollars—or millions. She described Nakajjigo as a prominent women's rights activist who rose from poverty to become the host of a reality television series in Uganda focused on empowering women.

Nakajjigo became a celebrity and immigrated to the US for a fellowship at the Boulder, Colorado-based Watson Institute for emerging leaders. Nelson, the government's attorney, said an appropriate award would be $3.5 million, noting that she had recently worked as a host at a restaurant and didn't have a bachelor's degree. (Read more Arches National Park stories.)

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