'Fatigue may have caused fatal fit'
A 21-year-old intern died of an epileptic fit that may have been triggered by fatigue after working "exceptional" hours at a top investment bank, an inquest has heard.
Moritz Erhardt was a week from completing a coveted placement at Bank of America Merrill Lynch's London offices, and was due to be offered a job at the bank, when his body was found in the shower at his temporary accommodation in August.
An inquest at Poplar Coroner's Court in east London today heard that the German student was taking medication for epilepsy, but had not told anyone at the bank about his condition.
Mr Erhardt's death sparked calls to overhaul the culture of punishingly long hours in the City of London after it emerged he had worked through the night several times in the days leading up to his death, and prompted Bank of America Merrill Lynch to launch a review.
Recording a verdict of natural causes, coroner Mary Hassell said Mr Erhardt died after an epileptic seizure, despite regularly taking medication, which may have been brought on by fatigue.
She told the court: "Unfortunately, although many many people live with epilepsy and go on to live to old age, sometimes it still causes death very suddenly in this way and sometimes that happens even with a person as young and as fit as Moritz was."
She went on: "One of the triggers for epilepsy is exhaustion and it may be that because Moritz had been working so hard his fatigue was a trigger for the seizure that killed him.
"But that's only a possibility and I don't want his family to go away with the thought that it was something that Moritz did that causes his death.
"He was a young man living life to the full and he was clearly enjoying his time in London and, whilst it's possible that fatigue brought about the fatal seizure, it is also possible that it just happened. And it is something that does just happen."
The inquest heard that Mr Erhardt had suffered from epilepsy since 2010 and was taking medication but had not told anyone at the bank.
He never complained about his working hours or feeling unwell, and even on the day before he was found dead, appeared to be fine, the court heard.
Mr Erhardt's father, Dr Hans-Georg Dieterle, described his son as sporty and "full of life", but said from the start of 2010 he had suffered one to two epileptic fits a year, but was taking medication for the condition and it was not stopping him from living a normal life.
Dr Dieterle said his son came to London in June after getting an internship at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and spoke with his parents via email, telephone and Skype.
Speaking through an interpreter, he said: "He was enthusiastic, he really enjoyed it. Both his work and his leisure time and being with friends."
He did not complain to his parents about his working hours, the court heard, but they noticed from the time his emails were sent - sometimes at 5am or 6am - that he had worked through the night.
"He never complained but especially my wife noticed in the last week that he just didn't get enough sleep," Dr Dieterle told the court.
"It's just from the times his emails were sent my wife noticed that he couldn't have enough sleep and this might be a risk in terms of his epilepsy."
Juergen Schroeder, Mr Erhardt's development officer at Merrill Lynch, described him as "very motivated, very confident", but also "very humble, very down-to-earth".
"Colleagues at the bank thought very highly of him and did enjoy working with him," he said.
He told the court he had never known Mr Erhardt to be unwell, and revealed that, in a questionnaire about health, Mr Erhardt said he had no medical conditions and was not taking any medication.
"Moritz was always full of energy, full of enthusiasm. He, I think, wanted to make the most out of his internship, he was very eager to learn," Mr Schroeder said.
Describing him as "very proactive", he said: "He would not just sit still and wait for the work to come to him. He would be going round various teams and introducing himself, especially at the beginning."
He told the inquest it was difficult to know exactly what hours the student was working, and admitted that most interns worked long hours.
"I think interns in general do work long hours and sometimes past midnight," he said.
"I would say it's not only the case at Bank of America Merrill Lynch - it's the case at most banks in London, it's the case in Germany, it's the case in, I think, most parts of the world as well."
But he said it was not only because of the workload, but also due to peer pressure and competition between ambitious employees to work longer hours than each other.
He added: "I don't think necessarily that on each and every project there's an expectation to always stay late. I think there's more an expectation, a general expectation for our profession, and you know about that before you join an investment bank, in terms of what you expect from work hours."
The court heard that, in a conversation the day before his death, Mr Schroeder had "hinted" to the intern that he would be offered a job at the bank.
On the day Mr Erhardt was found dead, Mr Schroeder said he received a call from human resources, asking where the student was.
He noticed he was not at his desk and his computer was off, then was told by another intern that they had been trying to get hold of Mr Erhardt, who had missed a lunchtime intern event.
"That was the time I felt 'This isn't him, this is out of character'," Mr Schroeder said.
"That was the point that I got slightly concerned and worried about him."
Staff at the bank worked out where Mr Erhardt lived and how to get in, and when they arrived, helped by wardens at the accommodation, Mr Schroeder said they found the light in his room off and the blinds down.
They heard the shower in one of two shower rooms in the flat running, and found Mr Erhardt in the shower.
"We weren't sure whether he was still alive or whether he was just unconscious," Mr Schroeder said.
"Moritz was leaning against the shower door."
Paramedics called to the flat checked Mr Erhardt's vital signs and he was declared dead at 8.34pm on August 15.
Mr Schroeder said he later heard that Mr Erhardt had apparently drunk a lot of Red Bull before his death, but was never able to verify the claims.
Asked by the coroner about how Mr Erhardt coped with his work, he said: "I was not very concerned about Moritz and the way he coped with his work.
"He seems, from the feedback I got, very efficient and very structured, and also relaxed, very relaxed.
"He was not the type of person who would show any signs of stress."
He told the court that Mr Erhardt had answered "no" to questions on a form about medical conditions and medication, and, as far as he knew, nobody at the bank knew of his epilepsy.
Mr Schroeder said another candidate at the bank had underlying health problems and so human resources had advised that they should work reduced hours.
Dennis Wierer, Mr Erhardt's mentor at Merrill Lynch, said he saw the student roughly once a week, and heard he was one of the bank's best interns.
He told the inquest that Mr Erhardt had never raised any issues or concerns and knew that in the past he turned down a project because he would not have had enough time to do it.
He said the men had lunch on the Tuesday before Mr Erhardt died, and said he seemed "absolutely fine on that day".
Telling the court that he later learned that Mr Erhardt had been working till 5am that day, he said: "You couldn't see it, he was absolutely relaxed.
"We sat down for an hour or so, he was absolutely fine."
Mr Wierer said the bank tried to make working long hours as easy as possible - by doing things such as providing transportation and a medical service on site.
"In general I think the well-being is very important in the bank", he said, adding that the "exceptional hours" Mr Erhardt had reportedly been working in the days running up to his death were "to my knowledge, unheard-of hours".
Paying tribute to Mr Erhardt, he said: "He was an outstanding intern, but I think the other thing that's very important is he was an outstanding human and individual.
"He was extremely humble, he had everything goiong for him, he had every positive quality you could think of."
"He loved his work, that was clear."
Pathologist Professor Pete Vanezis said there were signs that Mr Erhardt had suffered a seizure and gave the cause of death as epilepsy.
Asked how the intern could have had a fit despite taking his medication regularly, the pathologist said: "I am afraid it does happen.
"Epilepsy is a very unpredictable condition; unfortunately, in many cases we don't even know why people have seizures.
"In Moritz's case there were findings which pointed strongly to a seizure and we have a history of epilepsy.
"He was always, I'm afraid, at risk, even when taking medication."
Asked what could have triggered the seizure, Prof Vanezis admitted it could be due to tiredness, but added: "It's unpredictable, there might be a trigger, there might not be."
Bob Elfring, co-head of corporate and investment banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said: "We are used to working with people who are ambitious and want to over-perform" and added that the bank's intern programme had been developed and refined to use various methods of supervision like mentors and development officers.
He said there was no particular urgent project Mr Erhardt had been working on to warrant the long hours and admitted there was not a current system for monitoring working hours at the bank.
Mr Elfring said that, while he did not think a "clocking system" should be put in place, it might be possible to introduce a way of analysing the cards used by staff to swipe into a building to see if someone was repeatedly working long hours.
He said a global review had been launched, looking at issues including staffing and working hours at several levels, and said so far around 200 people have been interviewed.
"This is a very, very serious effort," he said.
Mr Erhardt's parents made no comment as they left the inquest.
In a statement, a Bank of America Merrill Lynch spokesman said: "Moritz Erhardt's death was a tragedy that affected and saddened everyone in our company and especially those who had the privilege to spend time with him.
"He was an exceptional student and it was our intention to offer Moritz Erhardt a full-time position with us on graduation.
"As we have previously announced, a senior working group has been convened to review the work environment for our junior employees.
"It has been listening to employees at all levels and is focused upon ensuring that, where needed, we provide a greater level of supervision and support.
"Our ultimate goal is to create better working patterns and improved work/life balance for future interns, graduate recruits and our broader junior banker community."