In the last week of his life, the parents of Moritz Erhardt, the 21-year-old Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern who was found dead in a shower at his London flat, realised from emails sent at 5am and 6am that their son was working through the night.
No details were given at an inquest at Poplar coroner's court of the hours he worked, but his father Hans-Georg Dieterle said that his wife Ulrika Erhardt became seriously concerned that their son was exhausted, although in phone calls, Skype and emails he said he was fine and enjoying the work and life in London. Officials of the bank agreed there was a culture of long hours at the company, among interns and young staff alike, even when the deadlines of a project did not require it.
There was no formal monitoring of the hours interns worked, though the bank launched an international review of working practices in the wake of his death. Erhardt's parents knew – though the bank did not – that he had been diagnosed with epilepsy in 2010, and although he was taking medication had one or two seizures a year. He was otherwise very healthy, fit and sporty, but during an internship at a bank in Germany a year earlier he became exhausted and received medical treatment.
The inquest heard he was regarded as outstanding among last summer's interns, and certain to be offered a permanent job. Juergen Schroeder, a senior staff member, said that although the interns were judged on the quality and not the quantity of their work, there was intense competition between them, and he had received one email from Erhardt timed 4am. He never saw any sign of his looking tired.
He was closer to Erhardt than the other interns because they were both German. The day before his death, in the last week of the internship, Erhardt seemed his usual energetic self and Schroeder gave him a strong hint he would be offered a job. On 15 August he noticed Erhardt was not in and his screen was blank, but assumed he was sleeping in after a night out. However, he became concerned when he had missed a lunchtime event for the interns, and that evening went to his flat, getting in with the help of the wardens, and panicked when he heard a shower running and saw a buildup of water outside a closed door – suggesting the shower had been running for a long time. Inside Erhardt was found not breathing, curled up and slumped against the door. A paramedic pronounced him dead at the scene. Pathologist Professor Peter Vanezis said he found no sign of any brain or other abnormality, and he had not bitten his tongue, but the presence of froth in his hyper-inflated lungs showed that he had suffered an epileptic seizure. Toxicology reports showed he had been taking his medication, and had a minute quantity of alcohol and no other drugs in his system. He said stress and exhaustion from very long working hours, something that could affect doctors, could be a trigger in seizures, but equally sometimes there was no trigger. "Those with epilepsy are at significantly greater risk of sudden death," he said.
The coroner, Anne Hassell, found that he died of epilepsy. She said to his parents, who left the court without comment: "It is possible that fatigue brought about his fatal seizure, but it is also possible that it is something that just happens." A statement from the bank, read to the inquest, said Erhardt was well liked and valued by everyone, and his death at such a young age was a tragedy from which they were determined to learn any lessons.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010