Between January 1982 and April 1989, 134 patients with a suspected liver neoplasm were referred to the liver unit, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham. In 105 (78 per cent), a primary hepatic neoplasm was historically confirmed, and 47 patients (45 per cent) proved to have primary hepatocellular carcinoma. Twenty-nine orthotopic liver transplants were performed in 28 of these patients (27 per cent). Twenty patients (71 per cent) survived 30 days or longer (median 11·5 months; range 2–87 months), of whom nine are currently alive. We retrospectively analysed our data to determine the influence of preoperative evaluation, histological type and staging on outcome. Computed tomography proved to be superior to intraoperative assessment (86 versus 58 per cent) in diagnosing tumour positive nodes. Patients with tumour negative lymphadenopathy had a better prognosis. Postoperative stage I/II had a median survival of 16 months (range 3–87 months) compared with 7·5 months (range 2–20 months) for stage III. Non-cirrhotic patients with hepatocellular carcinoma had the best prognosis; cholangiocellular carcinoma and cirrhotic patients with hepatocellular carcinoma had the worst outcome with no survivors beyond 1 year. Because of the advanced stage of disease at the time of presentation, the value of liver transplantation in primary liver cancer is limited. For those presenting with advanced disease confined to the liver (stage I/II) in whom conventional hepatic resection is not possible, significant benefit can be achieved in selected cases.