Increasing evidence regarding free radical-generating agents and inflammatory processes suggests that accumulation of reactive oxygen species can cause hepatotoxicity. A short-chain analog of lipid hydroperoxide, t-butyl hydroperoxide (t-BHP), can be metabolized to free radical intermediates by cytochrome P-450 in hepatocytes, which in turn can initiate lipid peroxidation, affect cell integrity and result in cell injury. In this study, we used t-BHP to induce hepatotoxicity in vitro and in vivo and determined the antioxidative bioactivity of esculetin, a coumarin compound. Our investigations showed that pretreatment with esculetin (5-20 microg/ml) significantly decreased the leakage of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) and alanine transaminase (ALT), and also decreased the formation of malondialdehyde (MDA) in primary cultured rat hepatocytes induced by a 30-min treatment with t-BHP. An in vivo study in rats showed that pretreatment with esculetin (i.p.) at concentrations of 0.5 and 5 mg/kg for 5 days before a single i.p. dose of t-BHP (0.1 mmol/kg) significantly lowered the serum levels of the hepatic enzyme markers (ALT and AST) and reduced oxidative stress in the liver. Histopathological evaluation of the rat livers revealed that esculetin reduced the incidence of liver lesions induced by t-BHP, including hepatocyte swelling, leukocyte infiltration, and necrosis. Based on the results described above, we speculate that esculetin may play a chemopreventive role via reducing oxidative stress in living systems.