Fifteen patients with cirrhosis underwent orthotopic liver transplantation for small hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and 12 patients with cirrhosis underwent hepatic resection for similar HCC. All tumours were of the non-fibrolamellar variant. The majority of the patients in the transplant group had Child's grade B or C cirrhosis. Median follow-up was 37 months with a minimum of 18 months. Eleven of 12 patients in the resection group had Child's grade A cirrhosis. Median follow-up was 29 months with a minimum of 16 months. Actuarial survival rates at 1 and 3 years for the transplanted patients were 80 and 63 per cent and all were tumour free. Tumour recurrence rate was 15 per cent. The overall 1- and 3-year tumour-free survival rates for patients in the resection group were 61 and 33 per cent. Tumour recurrence rate was 45 per cent. The results show orthotopic liver transplantation to be an important surgical option in cirrhotic patients with small HCC, particularly in those with moderate to severe hepatic decompensation.