SALT LAKE CITY — Opening arguments began Monday in Salt Lake City in a federal wrongful death lawsuit that centers around a young Ugandan activist living in Denver who was killed by a swinging metal gate at Arches National Park in 2020.
Attorneys representing the woman's husband and her family said they were seeking $140 million in damages from the government, according to the Associated Press.
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."
Michaud's attorney, Deborah Chang, told Denver7 in November 2020 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.
"For the sake of a padlock and chain, that you have in your garage... that is all that would have made a difference in his world," Chang said.
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 the 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.
That suit was filed in June 2021. It argued that the U.S. Park Service was negligent and did not maintain the park's gates.
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.”
Attorney Randi McGinn, who is representing Nakajjigo’s family, described the death in "gruesome detail" during the opening statements on Monday, the AP reported. The family was asked to leave the courtroom beforehand.
The AP reported that the government and Nakajjigo’s family disagree about her earning potential, which is used to calculate part of the damages. McGinn likened Nakajjigo to a nonprofit CEO who would have ultimately netted an annual income in the hundreds of thousands or millions. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nelson said an appropriate award would be $3.5 million, the AP reported, but he said he wasn't denying that she was an extraordinary person. He explained it was difficult to speculate on what her work would have done.