The family of an Ugandan woman from Denver who was killed by a swinging gate in Arches National Park was awarded $10.5 million on Monday.
Esther Nakajjigo, 25, died on June 13, 2020 when she, along with her new husband Ludovic Michaud, visited Utah. They married about three months prior. One of the Denver couple's stops was Arches National Park near Moab. As they entered, high winds blew the park entrance gate — a swinging pole — back across the highway. It pierced the passenger compartment of the couple's rental car, a Chevy Malibu, and decapitated Esther.
"I went from the best time of my life to the worst, in one second," Michaud said. "I turned my head and saw what I wish I didn't see."
In November 2020, Michaud notified the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service that he, along with Nakajjigo's parents Christine Namagembe and John Bosco Kateregga, intended to file a wrongful death lawsuit and seek damages for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress. He said he knew the suit wouldn't bring his beloved wife back, but he wanted to make sure the same type of accident didn't happen to anyone else.
Michaud's attorney Deborah Chang told Denver7 that the entrance gate should have been locked open, and not allowed to swing freely. She also said it should have been installed to swing inwards for incoming traffic, not outwards. She said Michaud escaped death by mere inches.
The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in June 2021. It argued that the U.S. Park Service was negligent and did not maintain the park's gates.
The opening arguments began in early December 2022.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Bruce S. Jenkins awarded the judgement in the civil case, ruling in favor of the three plaintiffs — Nakajjigo's husband Michaud, her mother Namagembe, and her father Kateregga.
Michaud was awarded $9,500,000, Namagembe was awarded $700,000 and Kateregga was awarded $350,000, according to the court documents.
According to the Associated Press, the amount awarded to Nakajjigo's husband and parents was substantially less than attorneys pursued, yet they celebrated it and said it was the largest federal wrongful death award in Utah history.
Nakajjigo rose from poverty to become an ambassador for women and girls in Uganda, and created a reality TV show to combat early pregnancy and forced marriage. When she was 17, she was given property to sell for her own tuition but instead used it to open a hospital for women and girls, many of whom had been assaulted and neglected. She became a philanthropic celebrity before immigrating to the United States for a fellowship out of Boulder.
In a statement to Denver7 from June 2021, parents Namagembe and Kateregga said their daughter was an extraordinary woman, leader, friend and daughter.
"This case is so important because Essie devoted her life to helping others — and she would have wanted to make sure we did something to ensure this never happens to another family visiting a national park in the United States," the statement reads. "We also want to make sure that the world never forgets our amazing daughter, who came to America on her path to make the world a better place for women and girls everywhere.”