New Brunswick·Video

Woman pinned under car as bystander mistook stumble for 'scam'

In New Brunswick, helping out a stranger in trouble is unwritten rule. But rules are made to be broken, as a Saint John woman learned as she lay bleeding in a parking lot.

Sarah Lawson, who has muscular dystrophy, was ignored as she pleaded for help

Every time Sarah Lawson goes out in the world, she said, she’s aware that her mobility issues put her at risk. (Julia Wright/CBC)

In small towns and cities across New Brunswick, helping out a stranger in trouble is an unwritten rule.

But rules are made to be broken, Sarah Lawson learned on Aug. 2. That Thursday she lay on her stomach in a parking lot in Saint John's north end, bleeding from a cut on her forehead.

Just after 3 p.m. Lawson — visiting her hometown from Thunder Bay for the first time in years — planned to meet an old friend at a fast-food place on Lansdowne Avenue.

arah Lawson, who has muscular dystrophy, was ignored as she pleaded for help. 0:51

When she stumbled in front of Subway, the 31-year-old PhD candidate "knew once I hit the ground that I wasn't going to be able to get up on my own."

Lawson has muscular dystrophy. It's a group of diseases that cause progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass. Frequent falls, trouble walking, and difficulty rising from a lying or sitting position are key symptoms. Often, she uses a disabled parking pass. She'd left it at home that day.

"I wasn't even strong enough to catch myself," she said. "My arms aren't strong enough. I went straight, head first, into the pavement."

'Worst fear' realized

She was relieved when she spotted a woman walking in her direction.

But she "noticed her avert her eyes," Lawson said.

"I called out to her ... I said, 'would you help me?'"

The Subway location on Lansdowne Avenue where Lawson, 31, fell and found herself unable to get up without assistance. She asked a stranger for help but was ignored. (Julia Wright/CBC)

The woman hesitated, Lawson said. Then to her shock, "she said no. She kept walking." She didn't ask if Lawson was OK, or what sort of help she needed.

Seconds later, Lawson said, her "worst fear happened."

The car that had been parked behind her started slowly backing out.

"I started looking around to see how I could get myself up again," she said. "There was nothing I could reach, and I couldn't see anyone else."

"It was surreal. I was thinking, 'Is this really happening?'"

'I would have been crushed'

Unable to get up, Lawson had to make a horrifying choice.

"Let this woman run over my legs, or risk pulling myself into the other lane and getting my upper body get run over," Lawson said.

As Lawson was pinned under the vehicle, three or four people ran out, waving at the driver to stop.

I have grace for this individual. I just want to know: what happened that you thought that a woman on the ground, asking for help, bleeding, was a danger to you?- Sarah Lawson

"She didn't hear or understand at first, so she kept backing over me," Lawson said. When the car did stop, bystanders tried to pull her out from under the vehicle while her right foot was still trapped.

"I told them, 'I'm pinned under the car, I can't move.'" The driver moved forward, and she's thankful to the man that finally helped her to her feet.

"If she had kept going it would have gone right over my chest area," she said. She's also grateful the woman was "a good driver, and was backing out slowly."

Otherwise, she said, "I would have been crushed."

Thought it was a scam

First responders arrived on the scene within minutes.

As Lawson was treated in an ambulance, a police officer taking statements told her the woman who had walked by told police she had ignored her plea for help "because she thought it was a scam," Lawson said.

"She thought … maybe I was faking the fall so that when she helped me up, I might take her purse, or take something from her. I'm not sure."

The 31-year-old is happy to be alive after a bizarre incident in a Saint John parking lot. (Julia Wright/CBC)

The woman had told police "that she was scared and didn't trust the situation, so she kept her distance."

Saint John Police did not respond to a request for comment on the incident. 

With a cast on her right foot, bruises on her knee, a cut on her head, and her shoulder rubbed raw from the pavement where she tried to drag herself away from the car, Lawson's mind keeps going back to the woman who kept walking — even though, she said, she isn't angry. 

'It was surreal. I was thinking, 'is this really happening?- Sarah Lawson

"I don't know what's happened to her, or to others that they get so jaded, or so afraid, to interact with people they don't know … maybe she had health problems like I did," she said, "I'm not that angry. I'm just kind of sad for the commentary this has on society as a whole.

"I have grace for this individual," she said "I just want to know what happened that you thought that a woman on the ground, asking for help, bleeding, was a danger to you?"

Give the benefit of the doubt

As Lawson recovers from this "bizarre incident," she said, she's kept a sense of humour.

"My mom started referring to me as 'Speed Bump,'" she said. "My friend said she's going to get a shirt made that [says]  No Parking." She has an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon to assess the damage to her foot. 

Despite a cast on her right leg and other injuries suffered in last Thursday’s incident, Sarah Lawson still made it to the family wedding she planned to attend in her hometown of Saint John. (Julia Wright/CBC)
She hopes what happened was a one-off. Every time she goes out in the world, she said, she's aware that her mobility issues put her at risk.

"But part of what makes it OK is that I trust if I need help, someone will help me," she said. "It was a bit of a shock that she said no. I may be less shocked down the road if someone won't help me up."

Lawson said people should be aware that it's not only seniors, or people with a cane, or wheelchair users, that might be disabled and in need of a hand.

If you're approached for help by a stranger, she said, "ask a few questions. Give it a little more time. Don't just walk off and keep to yourself.

"Give a person the benefit of the doubt."

About the Author

Julia Wright is host of Information Morning Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.

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