Arches accidental beheading trial ends, but verdict is still pending

Dec 12, 2022, 3:36 PM
Rock formation with an arch in barren landscape...
Turret Arch in Arches National Park on Dec. 11, 2022. (Larry D. Curtis/KSL TV)
(Larry D. Curtis/KSL TV)

SALT LAKE CITY — Ludovic “Ludo” Michaud has tortured himself with a lot of “what ifs?” in the two-plus years since his wife, Esther “Essie” Nakajjigo, was hit and killed by an unsecured gate while the couple was leaving Arches National Park.

What if he hadn’t suggested the trip to Arches? What if they had gone on a different day, or left at a different time?

But on Friday, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nelson tried to give Michaud some peace of mind.

“We want you to know, on behalf of the United States, this accident and Essie’s death was the responsibility of the United States,” Nelson told Michaud. “You bear no responsibility. None. … Nothing we can say makes up for your loss. We hope that, in some way, the conclusion of this trial will help with your moving forward.”

The end of that trial came Monday, but a verdict is still pending. Judge Bruce Jenkins said he wants to “examine with care” all the information presented during the weeklong trial.

Nakajjigo’s family sued the government for the largest federal award ever asked for in both state and national history, according to plaintiffs’ attorney Randi McGinn, seeking $140 million in damages.

The women’s rights activist from Uganda was 25 when, during a camping trip to Arches National Park in June 2020, she was beheaded by a metal gate that blew closed in strong winds and sliced through the side of the car she was riding in. The gate had been unsecured for the previous two weeks, despite national park requirements that prohibit gates from swinging, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court.

The gate narrowly missed Michaud, who was driving. He was “instantly covered with blood,” the complaint says.

Monday’s closing arguments focused heavily on the differences in testimony made by several economic experts, two of whom projected that Nakajjigo would have earned at least $9 million in her lifetime and the third who estimated Nakajjigo would have made between about $750,000 and $938,000.

McGinn argued that the smaller projections were based on categories of evaluation not allowed for under Utah law. The smaller projection takes into account only the averages of a statistical black woman, she said; while the higher projections factor in that Nakajjigo was a real, extraordinary person.

“Because (Nakajjigo) is off the charts, you can’t use the charts to evaluate her,” McGinn said.

But U.S. Attorney Amanda Berndt said while there’s no question that the plaintiffs are entitled to a reward, a proper calculation of Nakajjigo’s lost earnings must include the possibility that she might have left the workforce at some point for a variety of reasons.

Berndt also said her team can take into account only Nakajjigo’s education and earning history at the time of her death, exclusive from the money she raised for charitable organizations.

Additionally, Berndt said the plaintiffs can only speculate on what Nakajjigo might have done had she lived, and the court can’t ignore that “in favor of dreams and potential.”

She added that the plaintiffs’ assumption that Nakajjigo would have taken a salary “far in excess” of most nonprofit CEOs is “simply contrary to everything the court has heard about her,” Berndt said. Nakajjigo donated her own college fund to start a hospital, Berndt said; she raised money for charities and never took a salary.

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Arches accidental beheading trial ends, but verdict is still pending