AP

Trial begins over death of Ugandan woman killed in Utah park

Dec 5, 2022, 12:00 AM | Updated: 3:40 pm

FILE - Delicate Arch is seen at Arches National Park on April 25, 2021, near Moab, Utah. Attorneys ...

FILE - Delicate Arch is seen at Arches National Park on April 25, 2021, near Moab, Utah. Attorneys representing the family of a Ugandan activist who was killed by a swinging national park gate said Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, that they were pursuing $140 million in damages in a wrongful death lawsuit against the U.S. government. (AP Photo/Lindsay Whitehurst, File)

(AP Photo/Lindsay Whitehurst, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Ludovic Michaud was driving around the scenic red rock landscapes of Utah’s Arches National Park on a windy spring day in 2020 when something unthinkable happened: A metal gate whipped around, sliced through the passenger door of his car and decapitated his new 25-year-old wife, Esther Nakajjigo.

The tragic accident is now the subject of a wrongful death lawsuit Michaud and Nakajjigo’s family are pursuing, in which they argue that the U.S. Park Service was negligent and did not maintain the gates at the entrances and exits to the parks, leading to Nakajjigo’s death.

In opening statements Monday in Salt Lake City, attorneys representing Michaud and Nakajjigo’s family said they were seeking $140 million in damages from the government.

The family’s lawsuit claims when the national parks reopened in April 2020 after being shuttered due to COVID-19, rangers at the national park in Utah didn’t secure the gate in place, which in effect “turned a metal pipe into a spear that went straight through the side of a car, decapitating and killing Esther Nakajjigo.”

United States attorneys do not dispute that park officials shouldered blame, but argued the amount the family should be awarded is far less and called into questions the ways in which the damages being sought were calculated. They said claims by the family’s lawyers that Nakajjigo, who was 25 at the time of her death, was on track to be a non-profit CEO shortly were too speculative to be used as a basis for damages.

“We don’t know with any level of certainty what her plans were,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nelson said.

Attorney Randi McGinn, representing Nakajjigo’s family, on Monday described the death in gruesome detail. After requesting that the family leave the courtroom, she recounted the moment Michaud realized his wife had been killed, when he inhaled the copper-tinged smell of blood, turned to figure out what it was and saw she was dead.

Opening statements previewed how the trial will hinge less on varying accounts of the accident and instead focus on Nakajiigo’s biography and earning potential, which is used to calculate a portion of the damages. McGinn said if her life hadn’t been cut short that Nakajjigo’s trajectory suggested she would have gone on to become a non-profit CEO who could eventually have netted an annual income in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — or millions.

She described Nakajjigo as a prominent women’s rights activist who rose from poverty to become the host of a solutions-oriented reality television series in Uganda focused on empowering women on issues such as education and healthcare.

Nakajjigo worked on fundraising to open a hospital in an underserved part of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, became a philanthropic celebrity and immigrated to the United States for a fellowship at the Boulder, Colorado-based Watson Institute for emerging leaders.

Nelson, the government’s attorney, said an appropriate award would be $3.5 million, far less than the $140 million being pursued. He said he didn’t deny Nakajjigo was an extraordinary person, but argued it was difficult to speculate what kind of work she would have gone on to do. He noted she had recently worked as a host at a restaurant around the time of her death and didn’t have a Bachelor’s degree.

Arches National Park is a 120-square-mile (310-square-kilometer) desert landscape near Moab, Utah, that is visited by more than 1.5 million people annually. It’s known for a series of sculpture-like fins and arches made of an orange sandstone that wind and water have eroded for centuries.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Image: A Boeing 737 Max 7 is displayed during a debut for employees and media of the new jet in Ren...

Associated Press

Boeing says it’s in talks to buy Spirit AeroSystems, key supplier on troubled 737 Max

Boeing said Friday that it is in preliminary talks to buy Spirit AeroSystems, which builds fuselages for Boeing 737 Max jetliners.

2 hours ago

Image: McKenna Shuster works on a linocut art print which she does as a hobby in her home on the la...

Mike Stobbs, The Associated Press

U.S. health officials drop 5-day isolation time for COVID-19

Americans who test positive for COVID-19 no longer need to stay in isolation for five days, U.S. health officials announced Friday.

8 hours ago

Image: Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a Get Out The Vote...

Associated Press

Supreme Court agrees to decide if Trump can be prosecuted for election interference

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether the former president can be prosecuted on charges he interfered with the 2020 election.

2 days ago

mcconnell...

Michael Tackett, The Associated Press

McConnell will step down as the Senate Republican leader in November

McConnell said he plans to serve out his Senate term, which ends in January 2027, “albeit from a different seat in the chamber.”

2 days ago

Image: This combo image shows President Joe Biden, left, on Jan. 5, 2024, and Republican presidenti...

Associated Press

Trump, Biden won Michigan: but ‘uncommitted’ votes stick out

Early results from Michigan highlighted some of the two candidates' biggest political vulnerabilities ahead of the November general election.

3 days ago

An entrance to a Macy's store in the mall. (File photo: Ted Shaffrey, AP)...

Associated Press

Macy’s to close 150 stores as sales slip, pivot to luxury with Bloomingdale’s locations

Macy’s will close 150 unproductive namesake stores over the next three years including 50 by year-end, the department store operator said Tuesday.

3 days ago

Trial begins over death of Ugandan woman killed in Utah park