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Family of woman decapitated in Arches National Park closes case by asking for ‘justice’ and $169 million

Posted at 5:52 PM, Dec 12, 2022

SALT LAKE CITY — Plaintiff and defense attorneys on Monday agreed that the woman decapitated by a traffic gate in Arches National Park was extraordinary, but disagreed by tens of millions of dollars on what the judge should award to her surviving family.

Plaintiff attorney Randi McGinn asked that her clients receive up to $169.05 million for the death of Esther “Essie” Nakajjigo, a celebrity and humanitarian in her home country of Uganda.

“Essie was the tallest tree in Uganda when it came to women,” McGinn said in her closing arguments. “She was the person they looked up to.”

“And when she fell,” McGinn added, “it cleared the forest.”

The U.S. government has admitted liability for Nakajjigo’s death. Amanda Berndt, an assistant U.S. attorney, called the death a “tragic and unimaginable accident" in her closing arguments.

But Berndt asked federal Judge Bruce Jenkins to limit the damages award to $3.7 million. She said there is little evidence Nakajjigo’s work in the nonprofit sector could have generated the tens of millions of dollars in income the plaintiffs have claimed.

“In short, we cannot know what Ms. Nakajjigo might have done or what she would have earned,” Berndt said.

Jenkins is expected to rule in the coming weeks.

“Quite frankly,” he told both parties after their arguments, “I need to take time to examine with care the information that’s been furnished to me.”

The trial began Dec. 5. It included sometimes graphic testimony, photos and a video from a camera mounted on the Arches visitors center.

June 13, 2020, Nakajjigo and her new husband, Ludo Michaud, drove from their home in the Denver area to the park. As they were exiting, wind caught a traffic gate that had not been secured.

Its arm pierced the rented Chevy Malibu, decapitating the 25-year-old Nakajjigo in the passenger seat.

Besides gruesome discussion of the scene witnessed by Michaud, plaintiffs showed the National Park Service had been warned about gates that close clockwise – in the direction of oncoming traffic. The gate at Arches has since been changed.

McGinn asked that Nakajjigo’s father be awarded up to $1.05 million, her mother receive up to $9.5 million.

For Michaud, McGinn asked for up to $159 million. That includes $30 million for loss of companionship, $35 million for emotional damages and economic losses of $70 to $94 million.

The mother, Christine Namagembe, traveled to Salt Lake City and testified Wednesday about the loss of her daughter. It was her first time on an airplane and her first time seeing snow. She, her son, a translator and a Nakajjigo mentor who made the trip were usually the only Black people in the courtroom.

McGinn asked Jenkins to image if he had to travel to Uganda for a trial.

“And everybody in the courthouse was Black and nobody in the courthouse was speaking a language we understood and whether we would feel we could get justice,” McGinn said.

“Because of the extraordinary promise of America, Ms. Namagembe feels that this court will do justice for her daughter. And she’s right.”

Jenkins in the 1980s heard the cases of Downwinders – residents of Utah, Nevada and Arizona who thought they or their loved ones were sickened by nuclear testing. McGinn referenced that, saying Jenkins, 95, began his career with an extraordinary case and has another extraordinary one here in his latter years.