A nine-figure wrongful death trial against the National Park Service to obtain justice for a Black woman whose head was cut off while exiting a national park for an ice cream date with her husband has started in Utah.
Esther “Essie” Nakajjigo’s family believes she would still be alive if the park rangers secured the metal gate that sliced through her husband’s car’s passenger door, fatally injuring the victim. The family filed a lawsuit in November 2020.
While attorneys for the National Park Service do not deny liability, they argue the family has inflated damages associated with her death, asking the family to explain how they calculated compensation for the loss of the woman’s life.
Attorneys delivered opening statements on Dec. 5 in a Salt Lake City courtroom. Jurors must determine liability and damages for her death the Daily Mail reports. Relatives are seeking $140 million in damages and accusing rangers of negligence, saying had her life not been cut short, she had the potential to earn that much in her lifetime as a woman’s rights activist and socialpreneur, had she lived.
Nakajjigo and her husband Ludovic Michaud were driving out of Utah’s Arches National Park when a piece of the wind-blown gate broke through the vehicle’s window, slicing half of the passenger side. The tragic accident ended the life of the 25-year-old in front of her spouse’s eyes, leaving him covered in blood and barely escaping with his own life.
Arches National Park is located near Moab, Utah. Encompassing 120 square miles of the desert landscape, more than 1.5 million people visit the tourist destination a year. Some of the most popular features in the park are the sculpture-like fins and arches of orange sandstone shaped by millennia of wind and water erosion.
According to the lawsuit filed by the woman’s parents and husband, the metal gate essentially “turned a metal pipe into a spear that went straight through the side of a car, decapitating and killing Esther Nakajjigo.”
The widower and the family believe she was fatally injured because park gates were not properly maintained. The complaint states if park officials would have purchased an $8 padlock, the gate would have been adequately secured and the accident would not have happened. They allege the park violated regulations by allowing the gate to become a hazard.
“For want of an $8 basic padlock, our world lost an extraordinary warrior for good,” the lawsuit says.
The family’s attorney Randi McGinn requested the family leave the courtroom before detailing the gruesome death. She said Michaud did not realize his wife had been killed until he inhaled “the copper-tinged smell of blood” and turned to find her dead body.
“I don’t want anyone or any other family to go through what we’ve been through,” Michaud told CBS.
McGinn said Nakajjigo was a prominent stakeholder in the women’s rights movement who hosted a reality series in her native country of Uganda that focused on empowering women by shining light on education and health care.
When she was 17, she became Uganda’s ambassador for women and girls, ABC 4 reported. Many dignitaries recognized Nakajjigo for her outstanding advocacy and work in various places, including the United Nations.
The television show purportedly garnered 6.3 million watchers each week, naming the young woman Uganda’s “Young Personality of the Year.”
The lawyer told the jury she was a competent fundraiser who helped raise money to open a hospital in her country’s capital, Kampala. Her national notoriety as a philanthropic celebrity started to skyrocket, and after she immigrated to the United States as a Boulder fellow at Watson Institute for emerging leaders, she seemed to be on her way to making an international mark, McGinn said.
One of her mentors and colleagues, Wilson Jaga, a witness in the trial, said he wanted the court “to learn the power of this girl so that it can be amplified for many other girls across the world.”
According to Jaga, she raised $540,000 in 2019 through all of her work, including the TV show, awards, scholarships and more.
“Esther was a star. She was one in one million girls who came from nothing to something, and not only for herself but for millions of girls in Africa,” Jaga said.
While saving the world, Nakajjigo took time out and married the love of her life months before her untimely demise. However, they could not have the huge traditional African ceremony many diasporic brides want to experience. Her death altered those plans.
Outside of her fellowship and finding love, McGinn told the court Nakajjigo was on the career trajectory to become the CEO of a nonprofit, commanding a salary of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
However, lawyers representing the government said these claims are too speculative to ask for so much money.
“We don’t know with any level of certainty what her plans were,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nelson said, insisting that an appropriate award would be steeply less. He suggested offering $3.5 million.
While celebrating Nakajjigo as an exceptional person, he also noted that the young woman was working as a host at a restaurant at the time of the deadly accident. He also pointed to how she had not graduated with her bachelor’s degree yet — a key component of his argument.
The woman’s relatives initially sought $270 million, CBS Colorado reports. They planned to use the money to continue her work. Several projects for women and children were stalled because of the activist’s death.
Nakajjigo’s brother John traveled from Uganda to sit in the courtroom during the trial and said life without his older sibling has been rough on him. One of the only shining spots was, however, he finally met his brother-in-law.
“I’ve always wanted to meet him, though not in this way,” John said.