An Audi dealership where an apprentice mechanic was bullied before he killed himself was not to blame for his death, a coroner has ruled.
Cancer fears, mental health and relationship problems were a contributing factor to his suicide.
Eighteen-year-old George Cheese hanged himself in April 2015 after bullying by colleagues at Sytner’s Audi Reading site, in Berkshire, about six months after starting work there.
The inquest had heard how co-workers had locked him in a cage, doused him in brake fluid and set his clothes set on fire. It was also told how one told him he should “hurry up and kill himself”.
Coroner Peter Bedford called some of the staff members’ behaviour unacceptable in a verdict given yesterday.
But he said the company had made significant changes.
Cheese’s death was attributable to numerous factors, including his fears over his health and a failing relationship with his former girlfriend, who was deemed to be blameless, Bedford said.
Cheese’s parents had told the inquest that their son was “over the moon” when he got the position at the Audi dealership, but he soon started coming home covered in bruises and had holes burned into his clothes.
Bedford heard details of the abuse suffered, including one occasion when four men held him down while a fifth punched his leg, leaving him with a long-lasting limp. On another, he was taken out on a test drive and made to walk back to the dealership.
Much of the abuse was dismissed as “banter” and “horseplay” by colleagues.
Cheese's parents had met with his boss, Terry Kindeleit, to discuss the abuse, but Cheese later said he didn't want to make a formal complaint. Kindeleit told Thames Valley Police he concluded Cheese had made it up, according to a transcript of an interview which was presented to the inquest.
Cheese's line manager Simon Wright admitted being there when the apprentice was set on fire and described it as a "prank", adding: "It did not go too far. We knew where to draw the line...It was not bullying."
Bedford said he understood Cheese’s parents’ desire to blame the Audi dealership, but added that steps taken by the management following his death had improved conditions there.
Mental health charity Mind had run a management course at the dealership, and team-building exercises had been put in place, as well as weekly employee appraisals to improve the conduct of managers and supervisors.
Bedford said Cheese’s death clearly “came as a wake-up call and a significant shock to the garage company”.
“Senior management at the company did bring serious action against the mentor who was involved in the fire episode with George, further involvement with Mind, and a change in emphasis in further management,” he said.
Bedford stressed the other factors at play, including that Cheese may have feared he was suffering from cancer.
He had searched for information about tumours on his iPad.
Cheese had also suffered from mental ill health since he was 14 or 15, the coroner said.
Audi UK released a statement on Cheese’s death: “At Audi UK we remain deeply saddened by George Cheese’s tragic death and we would like to express our heartfelt sympathy and condolences to George’s family.
“George was a young apprentice technician working for the Sytner Group at its Audi dealership in Reading. He very sadly took his own life in 2015. His untimely death has been the subject of an inquest which is being heard this week.
“Audi UK will, in collaboration with the Sytner Group, review the full written findings of the inquest as soon as they become available.”