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FOX 13 Investigates: Family sues over death of woman killed in Arches National Park

Posted at 6:13 PM, Jun 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-14 20:13:59-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The family of human rights activist Esther Nakajjigo, who was decapitated in an accident in Arches National Park, has sued the National Park Service.

The suit was filed last week in federal court in Denver by the widower and parents of Nakajjigo.

FOX 13 reported earlier this year how Nakajjigo died June 13, 2020, after wind caught a traffic control gate and blew it into the rented Chevy Malibu driven by her husband, Ludo Michaud. The metal pole forming the top of the gate pierced the passenger side of the car and struck Nakajjigo in the head and neck.

Nakajjigo was 25 years old.

Michaud and his in-laws previously filed a claim with the National Park Service – a step toward filing the lawsuit – asking for $270 million. The suit does not specify the amount the plaintiffs are seeking, though it accuses park staff of negligence.

The plaintiffs contend multiple federal policies require such gates to be secured, but that the gate near the visitors center at Arches was unlatched for two weeks before it struck Nakajjigo. The complaint also describes how Michaud had to witness the grisly scene.

The couple had been married about three months. Michaud, in February, told FOX 13 about the trip to the park.

“I really wanted to show her Arches,” he said, “because I know all the parks around Moab … It's one of my favorite places in the U.S., if not my favorite place.”

The couple hiked to Delicate Arch and ate lunch in the Windows area before starting their drive out of the park.

Of the accident’s aftermath, Michaud told FOX 13: “I saw the worst thing I hope I will ever see.”

Nakajjigo’s family will have to show her death was caused by more than negligence, said James C. Kozlowski, an associate professor of recreation management at George Mason University who studies legal issues in the outdoor industry.

“Liability is the exception rather than the rule,” Kozlowski said.

“In other words,” he added, “there’s no liability for ordinary negligence. Liability, if any, would have to be based on proof of willful wanton misconduct, sometimes referred to as gross negligence.”

A National Park Service spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday. The park service previously issued a statement expressing sympathy to Nakajjigo’s family.

Nakajjigo was a performer who used her celebrity to improve the status of women and girls in Uganda. She received multiple honors for her humanitarian work and was attending a leadership program in Bolder, Colorado, at the time of her death.

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