Accumulation of saturated fatty acids in the liver can cause nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This study investigated saturated fatty acid induction of endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress and apoptosis in human liver cells and the underlying causal mechanism. Human liver L02 and HepG2 cell lines were exposed to the saturated fatty acid sodium palmitate. MTT assay was used for cell viability, flow cytometry and Hoechst 33258 staining for apoptosis, RT-PCR for mRNA expression, and Western blot for protein expression. Silence of PRK-like ER kinase (PERK) expression in liver cells was through transient transfection of PERK shRNA. Treatment of L02 and HepG2 cells with sodium palmitate reduced cell viability through induction of apoptosis. Sodium palmitate also induced ER stress in the cells, indicated by upregulation of PERK phosphorylation and expression of BiP, ATF4, and CHOP proteins. Sodium palmitate had little effect on activating XBP-1, a common target of the other two canonical sensors of ER stress, ATF6, and IRE1. Knockdown of PERK gene expression suppressed the PERK/ATF4/CHOP signaling pathway during sodium palmitate-induced ER stress and significantly inhibited sodium palmitate-induced apoptosis in L02 and HepG2 cells. Saturated fatty acid-induced ER stress and apoptosis in these human liver cells were enacted through the PERK/ATF4/CHOP signaling pathway. Future study is warranted to investigate the role of these proteins in mediating saturated fatty acid-induced NAFLD in animal models.