A federal judge ruled that the United States must pay over $10 million in damages in the 2020 accidental death of a Ugandan human rights activist. Just a few months after their wedding, Esther Nakajjigo and her husband were visiting eastern Utah, visiting parks and recreation areas. The timing coincided with the recent reopenings of many of the parks after pandemic closures. They were on the edge of Arches, where a metal gate usually secured by a lock swung over as they left. The force was so great that the gate came through the passenger-side door and decapitated Nakajjigo. Her husband witnessed the tragedy from the driver's seat.
While the $10 million was far less than Nakajjigo's family asked for, they were happy with the judge's ruling, especially since it is the largest amount of damages ever awarded in a Utah wrongful death case.
Randi McGinn, the family's attorney, said in a statement, "By his verdict, Judge Bruce Jenkins has shown the world how the American justice system works to hold its government accountable and greatly values all lives, including that of Esther Nakajjigo, a remarkable young woman from Uganda."
Nakajjigo's death drew national attention because she was a respected Ugandan women's rights activist, and because of the gruesome manner of her death. Nakajjigo, 25, and her husband, Ludovic Michaud, 26, lived in Denver, where she attended leadership classes on a full-ride scholarship.
The large claim was based on the nonprofit work she planned to do and what she meant to the community. As a teenager in Uganda, Nakajjigo was recognized for her community work, especially with young girls. Instead of using her college tuition money for her schooling, she used it to start a nonprofit community health center for girls. As a result, she was named Uganda's ambassador for women and girls at just 17. She also worked on the Saving Innocence Challenge reality TV show. In addition, the show took Lake Victoria Island girls who became pregnant in a "sex for fish" trade and gave them schooling and business funding.
Nakajjigo continued her activist work in the United States, where she had a fellowship at Drexel University in Philadelphia and another at Watson Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
The sole focus of the civil suit was the amount of damages the wrongful death merited. Michaud and Nakajjigo's parents claimed that $140 million was appropriate, while the government felt that $3.5 million was more accurate. The biggest point of contention between the attorneys for the family and the government was Nakajjigo's nonprofit earning potential. McGinn said that as a nonprofit CEO, she would have made millions during her career. While the U.S. attorneys recognized her work and potential, they pointed out that her last job was $15 an hour at a restaurant. The judge agreed more with the government's projection and awarded $10 million in damages.
Michaud will receive $9.5 million. In addition, Christine Namagembe, her mother, will receive $700,000; and Nakajjigo's father, John Bosco Kateregga, will receive $350,000.
READ MORE: The Most Dangerous Animals You Might Encounter at a National Park
Enjoy the outdoors?
Don't miss a story! Sign up for daily stories delivered to your inbox.