There is a season in Pittsburgh besides spring, summer, fall and winter — pothole.
It has been this way for a long time. A long time.
It was this way on March 31, 1943, when Christine Contillo and three other East Liberty women walked toward Penn Avenue and the Liberty Theatre to meet one of her daughters for a movie.
She was 60 years old but wasn’t slowing down.
“Even the devil couldn’t reach, couldn’t run after me,” she said in court testimony almost two years later.
At Frankstown Avenue about 8:30 p.m., the road was wet although it had not rained that day. She didn’t see the pothole in the street near the sidewalk in front of Ludebuehl’s shoe store through the standing water in it.
She stepped. She splashed. She broke her left ankle. And then she and her husband Pasquale Contillo sued the city of Pittsburgh.
So much about that evening is a slice of Pittsburgh long-since gone.
The intersection doesn’t exist, destroyed for redevelopment.
Gone, too, is the Liberty Theatre, built in 1915 by the same architect who designed Carnegie Mellon University’s Beaux Arts fine arts building and in a similar style. Its massive terra cotta facade, an American flag of electric lights built into it, was visible from blocks away. It was torn down in 1968.
Christine and her husband were both Italian immigrants. The four women walking to the movies that evening after a 78-degree day lived in the neighborhood and spoke mostly Italian to one another. Even in court, three of them chose to testify in Italian through an interpreter to describe that night.
Still, they knew potholes then just as well as Pittsburghers know them today.
The case reached the Superior Court of Pennsylvania’s western district in January 1945 before Judge James L. O’Toole Jr. and a jury. The bound and published record of the case — transcripts of testimony, jury instructions, written motions and orders — was on a shelf at Caliban Books in Oakland for $6 in 2011. This is how the story survived.
After his wife’s injury, Pasquale wanted compensation for the loss of her services around the house. He was retired, on a pension from the city of Pittsburgh’s filtration plant, and hard of hearing. He turned 68 five days before that ill-fated walk to the Liberty.
Christine’s ankle took a long time to heal. Seven weeks in a plaster cast in bed, then crutches, then a leather brace. In addition there was hydrotherapy, immersing the ankle in hot and cold water. And physiotherapy, applying heat through short-wave electrical current. She took pills to sleep, her daughters and daughter-in-law were washing and ironing her clothes, cooking, cleaning the house. When the weather was about to change, she could feel it coming. It was a lot of stress on her 4-foot-11 frame.
She went through almost a year of regular medical treatment. Her doctor, Louis G. Ignelzi, sent her a bill for $250, plus another $5 for the x-ray. Adjusted to 2015 dollars, that $250 is $3,391.94.
At trial, assistant Pittsburgh solicitor H. Stewart Dunn suggested that the medical bills were outrageous.
“You charged her $50 for putting on the cast?” he asked Dr. Ignelzi.
“You still say that is a fair and reasonable charge?”
The city of Pittsburgh called its lighting superintendent, two doctors, an asphalt crew foreman and a driver on a flusher truck that six days a week washed out the gutters on that section of Penn Avenue to say that either the pothole that swallowed her ankle couldn’t have been there long enough to be a problem or that her injuries were only long-lasting because she wore the brace for too long.
The jury didn’t deliberate long. On January 30, 1945, after a two-day trial, jurors awarded Christine $2,000 and her husband another $500. In 2015 dollars: $27,135.49 and $6,783.87, respectively.
“For such injury an award of $2,000 does not shock our conscience as unreasonable,” the judge wrote a few months later in denying the city’s motion for a new trial.
The city appealed, and lost in January 1946.
Pasquale, whose obituary appears below, died in 1964 at 89. His wife lived another nine years before her death at 91.
It is not clear how long the pothole survived.