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SALT LAKE CITY — "The ambassador of hope." "The princess of hearts." "A pearl of great price."
These were just some of the descriptors used for Esther "Essie" Nakajjigo in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City on Monday.
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 District Court.
The gate narrowly missed her husband, Ludovic "Ludo" Michaud, who was driving. He was "instantly covered with blood," the complaint says.
Now, Nakajjigo's family is suing the U.S. government for the largest federal award ever asked in both state and national history, according to plaintiffs' attorney Randi McGinn, seeking $140 million in damages.
Nakajjigo is worth that much money, McGinn told Judge Bruce Jenkins during opening arguments in the lawsuit's trial, because she's the "most extraordinary" 25-year-old Jenkins will ever learn about.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nelson said that while his team in no way wants to diminish Nakajjigo's accomplishments or her family's trauma, the amount of damages being asked is based on incomplete information. In particular, the economic damages are based on assumptions about the education and career paths Nakajjigo would have pursued had she lived; and since there's no way to say with complete certainty what choices she would have made, the plaintiffs' estimates are far too high, Nelson said.
While his team hasn't yet settled on a specific amount they believe is fair and just, he anticipates they'll propose in the range of $3.5 million for noneconomic damages and $752,000 for economic damages.
The plaintiffs' opening arguments relied heavily on an account of Nakajjigo's life and achievements. McGinn said Nakajjigo was "one in a billion," and her accomplishments were made even greater by the challenges she overcame.
Born in "abject poverty" in Kampala, Uganda, to an unwed teenage mother, Nakajjigo grew up in a two-room home with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing, McGinn said. She cooked on an open fire and for years kept her hair short because it made bathing with a bucket easier.
But from an early age, Nakajjigo's "intelligence and fearlessness," along with her innate sense of right and wrong, set her apart, McGinn said. She loved school "more than anything," the attorney said, because it "saved her" — opening her eyes to places where girls weren't sold as child brides or forced into sex work to afford menstrual products.
Her chance to help those girls came when Wilson Jaga, the communications director for Uganda's Office of the Ambassador for Women and Girls, saw a school video of Nakajjigo singing and asked if she would volunteer at a local hospital. McGinn said when Nakajjigo arrived at the hospital, she looked around and immediately started problem-solving. For instance, she created a teen clinic focused on teaching girls about health care, safe sex and the importance of education.
But then the hospital closed due to lack of funding, and Nakajjigo watched a teen mom die in her arms from complications following a difficult birth, McGinn said. So Nakajjigo sold a piece of land she inherited from her mother — which was expected to fund her college education — and invested the money into starting the Princess Diana Health Center, named for Nakajjigo's idol.
When asked why she started the health center instead of furthering her own education, McGinn said Nakajjigo answered, "I am one, but they are many." She was later able to attend college and get a degree, McGinn said.
At the age of 17, the United Nations Population Fund gave her a Woman Achiever Award, and she was named Uganda's Ambassador for Women and Girls, the complaint states. Later, in 2018, she became a United States Department of State Young African Leader, obtained the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders and was selected as one of only 16 Young Leaders worldwide (out of 8,000 applicants) to attend the 2018 European Development Days in Brussels as a European Commission Young Leader.
McGinn said Nakajjigo was "spectacularly successful" at raising funds. In 2019, she raised nearly 2 million Ugandan shillings ($525,506.75), all of which went to the Office of the Ambassador for Women and Girls.
Nakajjigo also started the "hottest TV show in Uganda," McGinn said: a reality series called the "Saving Innocence Challenge" that follows high school students as they help teen moms start businesses. By the end of its third year, the show had 6.5 million viewers, McGinn said, and Nakajjigo was a Ugandan celebrity.
Unable to go anywhere without being recognized, McGinn said Nakajjigo longed for a change. She applied for and was accepted to the Watson Institute in Boulder, Colorado, which is "designed to advance the careers of social entrepreneurs through training, intensive mentorship, and creation of a global network and community of peers," according to the lawsuit.
It was during her time in Colorado that she met Michaud. Nakajjigo liked that Michaud was kind, McGinn said — Nakajjigo hadn't received much kindness from the men in her life. He respected women, and he supported everything she was working for, McGinn said.
The pair dated for months before Nakajjigo returned to Uganda for a time, and Michaud missed her so much that, upon her return to the U.S., he told her that he never wanted to be separated from her again. They were married in a courthouse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
McGinn said camping didn't make much sense to Nakajjigo, who grew up sleeping on dirt floors, but Michaud shared his love of it with his new wife. On June 13, 2020, they spent the day exploring Arches National Park to celebrate the one-year anniversary of when they began dating. To tease Michaud about taking her hiking, Nakajjigo wore a T-shirt that said, "Everything hurts and I'm dying."
It was as they drove out of the park that the accident happened. McGinn asked Jenkins to imagine being next to the person he loves most in the world, when suddenly, "you feel something wet." Imagine, she said, turning to your wife and her head is gone.
McGinn said Michaud was covered in so much blood when witnesses found him that they thought he was the person who had been hurt. To this day, the scent of copper — so much like blood — makes him uneasy, she added.
McGinn also said that Michaud's initial trauma was so intense that, within 24 hours of Nakajjigo's death, his family feared he would die by suicide. Later, his counselor would say that he has the "worst trauma" she's ever seen. There's no treatment, McGinn said, for the "profound grief" of losing Nakajjigo; but his goal is to continue her work.
In his opening arguments, Nelson said this is "a rare case" in that there's substantial agreement between the parties. But where they disagree, he said, is how much money Nakajjigo raised in her lifetime and how much education she completed. Their economic expert will testify that her death represents a financial loss of about $752,000, Nelson said.
He also emphasized that the plaintiffs' economic projections rely heavily on the assumption that Nakajjigo intended to become a high-earning CEO of a nonprofit; and while it's reasonable to assume that Nakajjigo wanted to work in the nonprofit sector, there's no evidence that she was ever "inward-looking" — no evidence that Nakajjigo ever wanted vast amounts of money for herself.
"She wanted to help people. She didn't want to enrich herself," Nelson said.
The trial will continue through Friday.
Correction: An earlier version said Nakajjigo's family is suing the state. They are suing the U.S. government.