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Attorneys explain why U.S. should pay for death of Ugandan woman at Arches

SALT LAKE CITY — Plaintiff attorneys on Monday argued the U.S. government should pay $140 million to the family of a woman killed in Arches National Park because of her humanitarian work in Uganda and the gruesome death witnessed by her husband.

“She was one in a billion, Your Honor,” attorney Randi McGinn told the judge during opening arguments in the civil trial.

McGinn represents the widower and parents of Esther Nakajjigo, a Ugandan singer and actress who also worked to improve the lives of women and girls.

In June 2020, she and her husband, Ludo Michuad, visited Arches National Park. While driving toward the exit, wind caught a traffic control gate. The arm pierced the newlywed’s rental car, decapitating the 25-year-old Nakajjigo.

“I don’t want this incident to reproduce itself ever again,” Michaud told FOX 13 News in an interview a day before the trial began.

Besides ensuring the U.S. Park Service secures such gates in the future, Michaud and his in-laws want to use money from any court awards to continue the charity work started by Nakajjigo. That work came to a halt, the family said, after her death because she was no longer there to fundraise and operate the programs.

“She had like a tremendous potential,” Michaud said of his late wife. “She could lift mountains, basically, in her own way.”

In interviews Sunday, the family described Nakajjigo’s life and accomplishments much the same way McGinn did before the judge. Nakajjigo was born to a teenage mother in a two-room house with a dirt floor and no plumbing.

“She came from a very poor household,” said her brother, John Ssenkindu, “where the mom was beaten all the time, where she used to see children — young children — getting pregnant on the streets because we come from the slums.”

Nakajjigo’s mother, Christine Namagembe, does not speak English and has a translator in the courtroom.

“She said the sorrow, the pain she’s having,” the translator said on Namagembe’s behalf during an interview with FOX 13 News, “may not subside, may not go because she lost her daughter, but at least she can get some relief if she continues her girl’s dreams.”

Nakajjigo’s family arrived in Salt Lake City over the weekend. For Namagembe and Ssenkindu, it was their first time on an airplane, first time seeing snow and first time meeting Michaud in person.

“So that was this morning at breakfast,” Michaud said. “And it pretty emotional.”

“[Namagembe] and I, we cried.”

The plaintiffs also intend to show Judge Bruce Jenkins the horror of the accident. He will view photos from the accident scene and video from a surveillance camera mounted on the Arches visitors center. The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy is scheduled to testify. So are first responders and visitors to the park who tried to help that day.

“I’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Michaud said.

At one point in her opening arguments, McGinn paused so the family could exit the courtroom. McGinn then relayed to the judge some of the more gruesome details of Nakajjigo’s death.

At various points, McGinn referred to Nakajjigo as a “pearl beyond price” and a “change agent.” She showed the judge news articles and photographs depicting Nakajjigo’s work creating health clinics for teenagers, especially girls.

One picture showed an ambulance. On its side were the words “Donated by Essie.” That was Nakajjigo’s nickname.

In a rare move, the government has already admitted liability. But under questioning from Jenkins, assistant U.S. attorney Jeff Nelson contended the family should only receive about $4.25 million.

Nelson argued the plaintiffs are overestimating what Nakajjigo could have earned in the nonprofit sector and what Michaud should be awarded for witnessing the accident and its aftermath.

“Our intent is to propose to the court a fair and just damages award,” Nelson said.

Michaud is expected to testify later this week. The trial is scheduled to last through Friday.

Jenkins is expected to issue his ruling in the coming weeks.