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U.S. Government to Pay $10m to Family of Ugandan Activist Killed in National Park

— February 3, 2023

The young Ugandan human rights activist was decapitated by an unsecured metal gate on the periphery of Arches National Park.

The United States government will pay more than $10 million to the family of a Ugandan human rights activist who was decapitated in a 2020 accident at Arches National Park in Utah.

According to CBS News, Esther “Essie” Nakajjigo was killed after a metal gate at Arches sliced through the passenger side of the vehicle driven by her newlywed husband.

While the Nakajjigo family had initially sought more in compensatory damages, their attorneys celebrated the judgment, saying that it is—by  far—the largest federal wrongful death verdict in Utah history.

“By his verdict, Judge Bruce Jenkins has shown the world how the American justice system works to hold its own government accountable and greatly values all lives, including that of Esther Nakajjigo, a remarkable young woman from Uganda,” attorney Randi McGinn said in a statement announcing the award.

In his ruling, Judge Jenkins said that the death was “gruesome and overwhelmingly shocking.”

However, in his 10-page decision, Jenkins observed that the case was somewhat unusual, insofar as neither the victim nor the plaintiffs were U.S. citizens.

Nakajjigo and her husband, Ludovic Michaud, were on vacation in eastern Utah, visiting national parks across the region several months after their wedding.

Gavel on copy of lawsuit; image by Wirestock, via
Gavel on copy of lawsuit; image by Wirestock, via

Arches National Park, notes CBS News, had just re-opened recreation following a decrease in coronavirus cases.

On the edge of the park, a metal gate normally secured with a lock was left untethered.

As Nakajjigo and her husband were leaving Arches National Park, a strong gust of wind swung the gate with sufficient force to slice through the passenger door of the couple’s vehicle, decapitating Nakajjigo as her husband sat in the driver’s seat.

CBS News reports that the case attracted significant attention, considering the gruesome circumstances and Nakajjigo’s status as a relatively well-known human rights activist.

Nakajjigo, adds CBS, had grown up in poverty. However, she eventually became the host of a “solutions-oriented reality television series” in Uganda, which emphasized women’s empowerment, educational attainment, and equitable access to health care.

“The show saw an audience of 6.3 million each week, and Nakajjigo was named Uganda’s ‘Young Personality of the Year,'” the Denver Post reported in a 2020 article detailing Nakajjigo’s death.

By the time Nakajjigo left Uganda to pursue a fully-funded leadership course in Denver, she had raised enough money to build health care facilities in her hometown.

According to CBS News, neither the U.S. government nor the Nakajjigo family disputed the facts of the claim. Instead, the family’s civil lawsuit largely focused on the amount of damages merited.

Attorneys representing the victim’s family asked the court to award an estimated $140 million, whereas the U.S. government argued that $3.5 million would be more appropriate and comparable to similar awards in similar claims.

In the court’s ruling, Judge Jenkins awarded $9.5 million to Nakajjigo’s husband, $700,000 to her mother, and $350,000 to her father.

The lawsuit, adds CBS, observed that the activist’s death could have been prevented if Arches National Park had simply purchased an $8 padlock for the unsecured gate.

“For want of an $8 basic padlock, our world lost an extraordinary warrior for good,” the lawsuit said.


Decapitated human rights activist’s family wins $10 million lawsuit after accident at Utah park

Denver newlyweds’ trip to Arches National Park ends with wife’s death

Family awarded $10.5 million for newlywed decapitated by metal gate at Arches National Park in Utah

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