Trial began yesterday in Michaud v. USA, Case No. 2:21-cv-00722-BSJ, United States District Court, District of Utah, Judge Bruce S. Jenkins presiding. There is no other way to describe this case than a horrific Utah wrongful death action against the United States for its failure to properly secure a gate that caused the death of 25 year old Esther Nakajjigo. She was decapitated by a park gate while she was a passenger in a vehicle exiting Arches National Park.  

The United States conceded liability  in a Joint Stipulation Regarding Liability. Only damages need to be determined. 

The Stipulation Regarding Liability states: 

  1. On June 13, 2020, plaintiff Ludovic Michaud and his wife, decedent Esther Nakajjigo, visited Arches National Park. After touring the Park, Mr. Michaud drove the couple’s rented vehicle toward the Park’s exit, with Ms. Nakajjigo in the front passenger seat. As they neared the visitor center, a strong gust of wind caused a metal gate arm to swing into the roadway and collide with the vehicle. 
  2. The end of the gate arm entered the passenger side of the vehicle and struck Ms. Nakajjigo in the head, resulting in her immediate death, and narrowly missed Mr. Michaud. Mr. Michaud immediately exited the vehicle but then reentered the vehicle to put the vehicle in park and stop its forward movement. 
  3. The subject gate is used by employees of Arches National Park to restrict vehicles from entering the park. The gate consists of two hinged gate arms. When closed, the gate arms span the width of the main roadway leading in and out of the Park. When open, each gate arm is designed to be secured to a receiving post. Park employees were responsible for opening and closing the gate for securing each gate arm to its respective receiving post. At some point prior to June 13, 2020, however, Park employees opened the gate and secured the inbound gate arm to its receiving post but did not so secure the outbound gate arm. 
  4. Employees of Arches National Park had a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect Mr. Michaud and Ms. Nakajjigo from conditions at the Park that posed an unreasonable risk of harm to them. Park employees also had a duty to reasonably inspect, operate, and maintain the subject gate and specifically to ensure that the gate arms were secured to their receiving posts. 
  5. The unsecured outbound gate arm constituted a dangerous condition that was created by employees of Arches National Park.
  6. The United States thus breached the duties owed to Mr. Michaud and Ms. Nakajjigo on June 13, 2020, by failing to secure the outbound gate arm to its receiving post. 
  7. This breach was the proximate cause of Ms. Nakajjigo’s death on June 13, 2020. 
  8. This breach was the proximate cause of Mr. Michaud’s emotional distress arising from the events of June 13, 2020.

The Stipulation goes on to address the lack of comparative fault, which claims would remain, and those that would be voluntarily dismissed in light of the stipulation.

The entire stipulation is available here: 2022_03_03 Doc 56 Joint Stipulation regarding liability 

Damages are disputed. 

The following additional facts are taken from the Amended Complaint: 

Esther Nakajjigo or “Essie” to her friends was born in Kampala, Uganda, and was by all accounts a remarkable individual. When she was only 17 years old she donated the money set aside for her university tuition to start a private, not-for-profit community health center that provided free adolescent reproductive health care to young girls and women between the ages of 10-24 years old. 

She worked on building her clinic and was awarded the Woman Achiever Award by the United Nations Population Fund – she was 17. At the awards ceremony, She was named Uganda’s Ambassador for Women and Girls. She went on to become one of the most popular TV stars in her country and used her increasing success to champion the poor, destitute, and underprivileged girls and women in Uganda.

To further her mission and education she attended the Watson Institute in Boulder, Colorado, on full scholarship. It was while she was at school there in 2019 she met Ludovic “Ludo” Michaud. They were married in March, 2020. She was killed at Arches National Park June 13, 2020. She was killed by a gate in a road that should have been secured but wasn’t. 

How the court calculates the damages in this case will be very interesting. I will update you once I know more. 

Court Materials are available here:

  1. Docket – 0 – Docket – Michaud v. USA
  2. First Amended Complaint – 14 – First Amended Complaint – Michaud v. USA
  3. Answer to First Amended Complaint – 41 – USA Answer to First Amended Complaint – Michaud v. USA

A news article regarding the accident can be viewed here: 

Trial Team for the Plaintiffs are: 
Randi McGinn
Deborah S. Chang
Zoe Littlepage
Colin King

Trial Team for the United States:
Amanda Berndt

Salt Lake Wrongful Death Attorney Blog