Trial Guides congratulates author/presenters Zoe Littlepage, Randi McGinn, and Deborah Chang for an outstanding $10.5 million verdict on the tragic case of Esther Nakajjigo, a Ugandan activist who was decapitated in Arches National Park in 2020. The case went to federal court, where the US admitted full liability. This outcome marks the largest federal verdict in Utah history.
In June of 2020, 25-year-old Esther Nakajjigo and her husband, Ludovic Michaud, visited Arches National Park. Esther was decapitated when an unsecured gate swung open and struck the couple's car. The $10.5 million verdict is three times higher than the next largest Utah federal verdict.
The Legacy of Esther Nakajjigo
Esther Nakajjigo was a Ugandan human rights activist who died from decapitation in Arches National Park in 2020. She was an exceptional young woman with an impressive story of overcoming hardship and fighting for the greater good.
Born into poverty, and the child of a teen mother, Esther showed courage and aptitude even in childhood. She made it her mission to reduce instances of teenage pregnancy in Uganda; when she was just seventeen, Nakajjigo donated her university tuition money to fund a nonprofit community health center with that mission. She later created two reality television shows that sought to empower women and encourage them to stay in school. She then came to the United States to attend the Watson Institute, an accelerator program for promising entrepreneurs.
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. By age 25, “she had accomplished more than most people do in an entire lifetime and had much more to do with her life,” according to court documents.
Then, in the summer of 2020, tragedy struck.
How did Esther Nakajjigo die?
Esther Nakajjigo and Ludovic Michaud had been married only three months when they decided to travel together to Arches National Park for a weekend getaway: a “welcome break” from months of pandemic lockdowns. As the hot day progressed, the couple went to get ice cream, heading out on the park’s main road.
Suddenly, and without warning, a gust of wind caught an unsecured metal gate on the side of the roadway, swinging it into the car’s path. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, “the end of the gate pierced the passenger side of the couple’s rental car, impaling Nakajjigo and severing her head.”
Michaud is still haunted by visions of that horrific scene. He had to stay in his blood-soaked clothes until he returned to Colorado, the metallic smell of her blood still fresh. So gruesome was the scene that Michaud had to use cotton swabs to get all the blood out of his ears.
Michaud and Nakajjigo’s parents retained the team at Athea Trial Lawyers—including Trial Guides contributors Zoe Littlepage, Randi McGinn, and Deborah Chang—to represent them in seeking damages from the US government. Nakajjigo’s husband and parents sued the US government for negligence; Michaud also sued for emotional distress for having witnessed his wife’s horrifying death.
Attorney Randi McGinn argued that the national park was wholly responsible, as they had negligently failed to properly secure the gate. The plaintiffs’ attorneys filed a federal lawsuit about a year after Nakajjigo was killed, and the trial began on December 5 in Utah, where the tragedy took place. Nakajjigo’s mother and brother flew in from Uganda to attend.
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.” The attorney representing the US government admitted full liability. “The United States was 100% at fault,” the attorney said. “We want to express our profound sorrow for your loss.”
McGinn told the presiding judge that Michaud has PTSD from the event. “Beheadings have always held a special horror for human beings,” McGinn said. Michaud no longer watches television, for fear of seeing gore.
On January 30, 2023, a federal judge awarded more than $10.5 million to the family of Ms. Nakajjigo. Michaud will receive $9.5 million, Nakajjigo’s mother will receive $700,000, and her father will receive $350,000. The judge structured the verdict such that an appeal is unlikely.
“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,” said Zoe Littlepage, Trial Guides presenter and plaintiff attorney. “This is the largest verdict from a federal judge in Utah history.”
Michaud had told the Salt Lake Tribune that he had two goals with the trial: to ensure that such an accident would never happen again, and to receive a damages award large enough to continue Nakajjigo’s work and initiatives with women and girls.
“We wanted the world to know just how amazing she was,” said Littlepage. “There's really no amount of money [the judge] could have given that would have compensated her widower and her family for what they lost, and the world for what they lost. We lost a truly extraordinary light that was bringing a lot of good to the world.”